How to Really Love: An Interview with John Pavlovitz

John Pavlovitz is a pastor whose work really took off when he was fired for questioning Biblical literalism and calling for full inclusion of GLBT people in his congregation. Since then, he has written widely on his blog about tensions within the evangelical movement, on what it means to live as a Christian, and on finding a place to be honest and authentic in our relationship with God and with other people.

Recently, I got to talk with John about his journey and his recent book, A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community, where he calls for us to come into true relationship with each other at a table that’s big enough for all of us, regardless of our differences.

For an encouraging look at how to build relationships across divisions of faith or culture, or if you’re looking for a path toward a more inclusive Christianity, buy John’s book A Bigger Table. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

MJW: I know you grew up Catholic. Could you describe your experience growing up with religion?

JP: Yeah, it was all I knew. I knew it from the cradle. So I was raised with this God who loved me and who knew me intimately and who created everything, but along with that God who loved me, was this God who was also judgmental and prone to anger. So you had this strange tension. You know, you were loved, but also you had to watch your step.

So I grew up with the rituals and structure and tradition of my Catholic faith and I drifted from that but I’ve come back to an appreciation of some of those rituals.

MJW: You talk about how you drifted away from church and then you drifted back. Can you talk about that?

JP: I think most people have that -- if they have a faith growing up, they have to stretch that as they grow up and get off the shoulders of their parents and say, what do I have here? Is this something I want to continue?

I drifted from that and I knew that if I was going to re-engage my spirItuality or religion or the church, it was going to be in a very different way. So that was the challenge, to re-engage the church in a way that really fit me, this new version of me. And I think a lot of people still have these longings, and these questions and they want to find community where they can work those questions out, but they don’t find many churches where they feel that can happen in an authentic way.

As a hopeful agnostic, I had a lot of indecision and a lot of vacillation and I was brought up to believe that those things were bad.

Questions were bad and doubts were deficiencies.

It really wasn’t that I could make a decision, it was really that I wanted to keep exploring. But that lack of clarity often pushes you to the periphery in a lot of faith traditions.

There’s a conspiracy of silence that I talk about in A Bigger Table where everyone’s saying they have it figured out, but knowing that they don’t. I wanted a place where I could just say, “I don’t have it figured out and I’m ok with that.”

But in the book I talk about being fired from my church and being given the gift of being able to ask anything and say anything and once you can do that, how freeing that is. Our spiritual journeys, it’s the same way. Whatever I believe about God, God is big enough to handle my vacillations, my challenges.

People of faith have a lot of guilt about not wanting to anger God. And when you grow up believing that questioning the Bible or questioning what you believe about the Bible is going to get God angry, you’re going to resist that.

Now, I tell people in church leadership: Be the most authentic version of yourself, because that is what people are hungry for.

MJW: One of the things I really love about your work is that push for honesty. I really see honesty as a key part of developing an authentic faith experience, whatever that Higher Power, God, whatever that thing is that you’re relating to that’s not yourself. It takes honesty to be in true relationship.

JP: There’s a partial honesty that I talk about in A Bigger Table in the traditional church, where they’ll share some things about themselves but they read the room and they understand ok, there’s some things I can’t share. And that is not a healthy relationship of any kind.

I try to give people permission to be exactly what they are and where they are at any given moment. That’s the hope.

MJW: When I first came to your book, A Bigger Table, one of the fears I had is that it’s still just a bigger Jesus table. And that I’m going to come there and there’s still going to be a sell, and when it becomes obvious that I’m going to take too much time, or that someone’s really going to hold on to their Judaism, then they’re going to be shown the door. How do you respond to that?

JP: The heart of the bigger table for me, it’s not built on doctrine. It’s built on these four non-negotiables, these four table legs - hospitality, authenticity, diversity, and agenda-free relationships. And that’s the one that most people who grew up in a strong evangelical background have trouble with because the goal was always a relationship to save you or to get you to Jesus.

For me, the table is about being story learners and listening to stories. So there is no expectation that you’re going to convert someone. You just share life with them.

So when people don’t read the book because I’m a pastor or because I’m a Christian, that’s not what this is about. What this is about is when people met Jesus, they left with their dignity intact. If we can’t do that, it’s not about what our doctrine or our theology is. So that’s what the table is to me: You are received as you are.

MJW: Your views on gay and lesbian people were a big part of your shifting faith. How are your beliefs distinct from the love the sinner, hate the sin idea?

JP: Love the sinner, hate the sin is not any place in scripture. I don’t identify with that at all. The difference for me is I love people.

I don’t think that the writers of the Bible knew anything about gender identity or sexual orientation so I don’t even see the Bible as commenting on those things. So I just receive people as they are.

I understand how complex each person is, how unique each person is. And I look at my own experience of identity and orientation and how natural those were for me and I realize that they’re that natural for everyone.

I was talking with someone last night who said, “Well, the Bible says this - .”

And I said, “Listen, if you had a medical journal that was 4,000 to 6,000 years old, you would not let a surgeon use that to perform a procedure on you, because you’d know that the writers of that journal didn’t understand how the body works the way we do now. And when we’re talking about the deepest things about people, the way they love and the way they get affection and value in relationship, I don’t see the Bible as commenting on those things.”

I just look at people and I look at Jesus and how he left people with dignity and that’s my job.

You can’t just take these words and make them cover all of identity and orientation. The words are just not sufficient.

MJW: So, it goes back to the question of the inerrancy of scripture. I was part of a church briefly in high school and their answer was, “Well if God is God, then we can trust that God could write the Bible. If the Bible is God’s PR manual, then we can trust that God can get that right.”

JP: For me, to look at the Bible and to say that it was written by 20 to 30 to 40 authors throughout that library of books, over thousands of years and different languages, we can say, yes, God could do that.

But we’re also saying then that God only spoke to those handful of people, that God is only allowing that revelation, with those people, in that period of time. And that to me, limits God tremendously.

It really says that my idea of the Divine is far too small. So, yeah. God could. But God could just as easily be speaking through a million different people right now. And is.

The Christian tradition says you’re filled with the Holy Spirit, I’m filled with the Holy Spirit - the same Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, scripture says. Well that means that you and I are just as capable of revealing God or of understanding God as any of the people who wrote the Bible. And that’s the interesting tension that I think evangelicals never wrestle with.

MJW: Our time is almost up. What would you like to leave people with? 

What I would like to tell people is to not worry about the label you have for your spiritual journey.

Or whether you have a label at all or whether you feel like you have a spiritual journey at all.

There is no box to fit into.

And to rest in the questions. To rest in the mystery and to realize that everyone around you, even if they’re self-assured in their faith tradition, they have the same nagging questions. Even the most finger-wagging pastor, in the back of their mind, has stuff they can’t resolve. And to be ok with what you can’t resolve. To be ok with the questions.

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Get A Bigger Table by clicking here

In it, John Pavlovitz offers a heartening look at some of the biggest issues that attempt to divide us from each other in today's America. All this, in quick, easy to read sections, that will uplift you and encourage you to truly love your neighbor as yourself.