Our Actual, Non-Ideal Selves

Christians should help one another to silence the voice that accuses. To celebrate a repentance — a snapping out of it, a thinking of new thoughts — which leads to possibilities we never considered. To love one another as God loves us. To love ourselves as God loves us. To remind each other of the true voice of God. And there’s only one way to do this: by being unapologetically and humbly ourselves. By not pretending. By being genuine. Real. Our actual, non-ideal selves.

— Nadia Bolz-Weber, Shameless, p. 183

Photo: near Skyline Drive, Virginia, August 6, 2009

The Eyes of Christ

Other followers of Jesus see something different when they look at the mess in front of them. They see pain. They see need. They see longing. They see an opportunity to bring restoration here and now. They are focused as much on this world as they are on the next. These, I’ll contend, are the eyes of Christ, and these are the eyes of those who would build the bigger table. We are learning to see differently than we once did.

— John Pavlovitz, A Bigger Table, p. 124

Photo: SchloƟ Dhaun, Germany, July 2002


The kind of intimacy Jesus shares with people, the kind that was and is transformational, only comes with close proximity. It is not possible screamed from across the road or shouted from a pulpit or laid out in a carefully researched dissertation. It cannot be gleaned from a clever meme or a spirited Twitter exchange or a hermeneutic debate. It only comes through the redemptive relationship forged when we are willing to sit across from people who believe differently than we believe, willing to get close enough and stay long enough to see both their unique humanity and their inherent divinity. This is how we love people well; it is how we put flesh on our faith; and it is how we follow so close behind the rabbi Jesus that we are covered in his dust. The only way the table can really expand is when we, like Christ, are willing to take our place across from those who appear to be or even desire to be our adversaries. Jesus’ call to embrace love as theology isn’t merely a surface, sugary platitude. It’s the most difficult, radical, time-consuming work of reflecting Christ to the world around us. In the end, the thing that glorifies God isn’t our belief system, but how we treat those who don’t share that belief system. We can be people of deep conviction without needing to pick up a bullhorn.

— John Pavlovitz, A Bigger Table, p. 121

Photo: South Riding, Virginia, June 25, 2020

Creating Proximity

The beauty of the bigger table is that it creates proximity in the way Jesus did. It destroys distance between people, and distance — whether real or imagined — is the enemy of relationship. This chasm allows us to otherize people with little accountability to their reality. It enables us to hold onto the belief that the crudely drawn caricatures we fashion for those we disagree with are at all accurate, allowing us to craft a clearly defined us-vs.-them narrative and place them opposite us. This simple narrative can’t accommodate people’s individual stories, as this is too labor intensive and time consuming. Instead it lumps those stories together into the closest-fitting generalization (a political party, a religious tradition, a people-group stereotype) and operates with that as truth. But these containers are simply never adequate. Our labels are never large enough for unique image bearers of God, and unless we become relentless in really straining to see individual people, we will always default to this easy, lazy shorthand, and we will always shortchange the beauty within them. We’ll also be satisfied viewing them from this safe distance of our self-righteousness and shouting through bullhorns or shaking tambourines.

— John Pavlovitz, A Bigger Table, p. 120-121

Photo: Great Falls National Park, June 14, 2016


For me, going to the beach is always like meeting God. There’s that moment when you make your way down the path that cuts through the dunes. As you walk farther, the quiet noise in the distance gradually becomes a welcome roar. You crane your neck as if unsure it’s all still there. Your pace quickens as the sound rises and the wind grows, and suddenly you’re emptied out into the full, vivid majesty of it all. And you breathe. It never fails to level me. It is never commonplace. It is always holy ground. If you’ve been to the beach, you understand exactly what I mean. If you haven’t — well, you just won’t. That’s the thing about the ocean: until you experience it, no one can explain it to you, and once you have experienced it, no one needs to. The love of God is this way. For far too long, Christians have been content with telling people about the ocean and believing that is enough.

We’ve spoken endlessly of a God whose lavish, scandalous love is beyond measure, whose forgiveness reaches from the furthest places and into our deepest personal darkness. We’ve spun gorgeous, fanciful tales of a redeeming grace that is greater than the worst thing we’ve done and available to anyone who desires it. We’ve talked about a Church that welcomes the entire hurting world openly with the very arms of Jesus. We’ve talked and talked and talked — and much of the time we’ve been a clanging gong, our lives and shared testimony making a largely loveless noise in their ears. They receive our condemnation They know our protests. They experience our exclusion. They endure our judgment. They encounter our bigotry. And all of our flowery words ring hollow. It’s little wonder they eventually choose to walk away from the shore, the idea as delivered through our daily encounters with them not compelling enough to pursue for themselves. Our commitments to hospitality, authenticity, diversity, and community can be empty words, too, if we don’t put them into practice.

Church, the world doesn’t need more talking from us. It doesn’t need our sweet platitudes or our eloquent speeches or our passionate preaching or our brilliant exegesis. These are all just words about the ocean, and ultimately they fail to adequately describe it. The world needs the goodness of God incarnated in the flesh of the people who claim to know this good God. As they meet us, they need to come face-to-face with radical welcome, with unconditional love, with counterintuitive forgiveness. They need to experience all of this in our individual lives and in the Church, or they will decide that it is all no more than a beautiful but ultimately greatly exaggerated story about sand and waves and colors that cannot be described.

— John Pavlovitz, A Bigger Table, p. 105-106

Photo: South Riding, Virginia, May 10, 2020


We must be honest and humble about this: Many people of other faiths, like Sufi masters, Jewish prophets, many philosophers, and Hindu mystics, have lived in light of the Divine encounter better than many Christians. And why would a God worthy of the name God not care about all of the children? (Read Wisdom 11:23-12:2 for a humdinger of a Scripture in this regard.) Does God really have favorites among his children? What an unhappy family that would create — and indeed it has created. Our complete and happy inclusion of the Jewish scriptures inside of the Christian canon ought to have served as a structural and definitive statement about Christianity’s movement toward radical inclusivity. How did we miss that? No other religion does that.

— Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ, p. 34-35

Photo: Burnside Farms, Virginia, April 24, 2015

Recalibrating Our Hearts

As we who already comprise the Church recalibrate our hearts for a different purpose, we are beautifully altered too. When we treasure people as they are, we become less manipulative; we become better listeners; we are less prone to morality policing. Agenda-free community allows messiness and failure and regression in ways that are so rarely tolerated in the traditional church. Again, this is the table Christ sets over and over in the Scriptures: the place of continual restoration, perennial communion, unending fellowship. You don’t earn a spot there; you don’t fail and then find yourselves outside of it. Just ask Peter. He was one of Jesus’ original twelve disciples, the one who publicly boasted of his faithfulness to his teacher, even if it meant his own death. It would be this same Peter who would soon stand in the public square following Jesus’ arrest, denying three times that he even knew him. And the Gospel writer John describes this same Peter weeks later, standing on the shoreline, being forgiven three times by a resurrected Jesus, as a symbolic wiping away of his failure following a restorative waterside meal hosted by his teacher (John 21:15-22). This is the table Jesus sets. It is the table of second chances, and two hundredth chances, the table of grace. There you don’t ever lose your place, and you are never “finished.”

At the table, Jesus had wisdom to share, hard words to give, and purpose to call people to, but more than that he had their humanity to affirm. He allowed them the dignity of being seen and heard and known. Imagine what it would look like if we oriented ourselves around that pursuit, if we had no other agenda than walking alongside people sharing the view of God from where we stand, not needing them to see what we see, or believe what we believe, but to encounter Jesus in our very flesh.

— John Pavlovitz, A Bigger Table, p. 102

Photo: South Riding, Virginia, April 25, 2020

Beyond Sameness

One look at the group Jesus first assembled as his followers tells us that something is lost when sameness is the defining characteristic of a church. Jesus’ example teaches us that something is wrong when we leave out people who differ from us and only feel at home when everyone is the same. His goal is not to make us more of what we are, but help us to become what we can be. That requires us to expand our understanding of what it means to love our neighbor. Christ shows us that the only way to learn the greatest commandment is to have people in our lives who we personally find so difficult to love that we have to get up every morning and pray to our Creator for a love we could not produce on our own. The first disciples had to ask God to expand their hearts so they could overlook the past sins of the tax collector, put up with the ideological torpedo the zealot launched at breakfast, ignore the angry brothers’ latest argument, or figure out if it was time to confront the group treasurer they were beginning to think was embezzling funds.

— Tom Berlin, Reckless Love, p. 43

Photo: Green heron, South Riding, Virginia, April 25, 2020

Exclusion Excluded

The truly one, holy, catholic and undivided church has not existed for a thousand years now, with many tragic results. We are ready to reclaim it again, but this time around we must concentrate on including — as Jesus clearly did — instead of excluding — which he never did. The only people that Jesus seemed to exclude were precisely those who refused to know they were ordinary sinners like everyone else. The only thing he excluded was exclusion itself. Do check me out on that, and you might see that I am correct.

— Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ, p. 34

Photo: Hemlock Overlook Regional Park, Virginia, April 6, 2020

Rich Diversity

Our distinctions of race, gender, orientation, and place of origin all shape how easy or difficult it has been for us to claim the same inherent needs we have to be seen and heard and respected, and they craft the specific lens through which we filter the world. The very specific intersection of our various differences alters how we individually have experienced life, and so we need to bring these all to bear as we build community, each being informed by one another. The color of someone’s skin, their inclination to love, their gender identity, the culture of their upbringing, and every other facet of their humanity matter, because these all work in concert to compose the once-in-history expression of life they manifest. These things are the unique lines of their original stories.

And as a person of faith, these distinctions all reveal the unlimited beauty of One who is the source of each of us, so this rich diversity is the very holy ground where God speaks. Bigotry doesn’t happen when we notice other people’s differences. It happens when we believe or act as if those differences make another less worthy of love or opportunity or compassion or respect. We need to learn to dance together.

— John Pavlovitz, A Bigger Table, p. 94

Photo: South Riding, Virginia, April 7, 2020