To Everyone Who's Wondering: Yes, I Still Believe In God; No, I Don't Believe In That Kind Of God Anymore

To Everyone Who's Wondering: Yes, I Still Believe In God; No, I Don't Believe In That Kind Of God Anymore

It’s Week 2 of “Burn Those Books” and this week I want to share with you a little bit from the book “A Bigger Table” by John Pavlovitz.  

To be honest, I had never heard of Pavlovitz until I came across this book and then when I heard him speak at the Wild Goose Festival last Summer.  He has an extensive story that you can Google and read about online, but let’s just say this dude is a BOAT ROCKER and …

I.

LOVE.

IT.

He’s not afraid to rock the boat, to kick the hornet’s nest, or to challenge the status quo.  And often times I find myself walking away from his blog and the stuff he shares on social media feeling uncomfortable, challenged, and full of remorse for the state of the church and the state of the world.  

… And (sometimes) the state of my own heart.

The full title of the book is “A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, And Hopeful Spiritual Community” and it explores the place that ‘the table’ had in Jesus’ life and ministry.  Not merely the ‘communion table’, mind you, but the actual table where story after story after story shows Jesus meeting with various kinds of people at a table to share a meal.

Tax Collectors.

Lepers.

Prostitutes.

His Disciples.

Pharisees.

The table played a large role in the life of Jesus. At times it’s almost as if the table is its own character in the story, drawing all different kinds of people in so that they can sit with, meet with, talk with, and just be in the presence of the Rabbi, Jesus.  The remarkable thing about the table, though, that’s often overlooked is that no one was ever turned away.  If the table represents the Kingdom of God …

(And I think it does.) 

… No one is turned away.  Instead, everyone is welcomed and everyone is present at it.

Every.

One.

There are even times in the Gospels (like in Mark 2) where Jesus is sitting at the table with tax collectors and “sinners” while the Pharisees and church leaders stand off to the side grumbling and complaining that Jesus hangs out with such lowly human riffraff. 

Notice, though:

The Pharisees are still there.  

Right?  

Like, they might not be sitting at the table, but they’re still in the presence of the table.  And I think that’s how the table works … I think that’s how the Kingdom of God works, really – everyone is invited, everyone is in its presence (because it’s everywhere), but only some will choose to actually sit, partake, and enjoy it.  

Everyone – even the people we DON’T want to be there. Even they’re there!  Like the Pharisees, for example.  And that’s the thing that makes the table so challenging. Like, I might love to hang out with the tax collector and declare, “YES! Even he has a place at the table!  The church turned him away, but Jesus has brought him in!”

Or the LGBTQ person.

Or the drunk.

Or the addict.

Or the prostitute.

Or the single mom who has been divorced 3 times.

But the reality is that the stuck up religious leader who thinks he’s better than everyone else has a place at the table, too, just as much as the tax collector, the prostitute, etc.  

Again, everyone has a spot.

As I did last week with McLaren’s book, I want to share with you one part of Pavlovitz’s book that impacted me the most and talk a little bit about how I’ve been working it into my life and what we do here at the What If Project.  

Early on the book he talks about what sent him on his path of what’s called “deconstruction”.  If that’s a new term for you, basically it refers to a season of life that you enter into as a result of realizing that the …

Faith.

Worldview.

Concept of God.

Way to read the Bible or some other ancient text.

Etc.

… No longer works or fits in the world around as you experience it and know it to be.  And so you begin to “deconstruct” what you used to believe or how you used to believe or whatever NOT so that you can throw the whole thing away, but so that you can “reconstruct” it back into something more beautiful than before, something that will become a more positive force in your life and (therefore) in the lives of everyone you encounter, everywhere. 

Pavlovitz says it like this …

“Sometimes reality begins to argue with your theology. Your experience no longer matches your belief system and you stand in the precarious spot where those two things rub up against one another to tumultuous effort.”

For him, the season of deconstruction began when he started to find that the traditional Christian understanding regarding homosexuality no longer rang true in his world.  Once he became friends with some LGBTQ people and had real life encounters with real life people who had real life names and emotions and stories and backgrounds and dreams … he began to realize that how he had been reading the Bible and understanding God no longer worked.

And so the deconstruction of his “those people aren’t welcome theology” began so that he could (ultimately) reconstruct it into an “everyone is welcome theology”.  

That made me think about my own deconstruction.  This is by no means a complete narrative or story of how I got to where I’m at in my faith, but a small glimpse into the bigger story of why I’m doing what I’m doing today here, at the What If Project.

It’s no secret that the way I think about and view God, theology, the Bible, Jesus, Christianity, etc. has experienced a bit of a “migration” or “evolution” or “deconstruction” over the last year. Lots of people have commented on it, a few have challenged me on it, and some have turned their back on me because of it.

I’ve been called a heretic.

I’ve been told that I’ve strayed.

That I’ve gone off the deep end.

That I’m a lost man.

One dude called me a “butt-hurt snowflake”, whatever that means.

A wolf.

A disappointment.

Truth be told, however, that deconstruction has been going on for about 10 years even though I’ve only been vocal about it over the last year.  Back when all of those people used to like me and hang on every word I said out loud, I was internally wrestling with words and ideas and thoughts that I wasn’t yet ready to vocalize.  Words that I KNEW would draw anger from the church faithful, ideas that I KNEW would cause some people to turn away, thoughts that I KNEW would bring my reputation in the church under fire. 

You see … 

I used to think that God was wrathful.

I used to think that Jesus died to save me from that wrath.

I used to think that LGBTQ was a sin.

I used to think that pre-marital sex was one of the greatest sins.

I used to think that there was no other way to be than pro-life.

I used to think that the death penalty was OK.

I used to think that the Bible was a rule book or a guide book of sorts.

I used to think that in order to get to heaven I had to believe the right things about Jesus.

I used to believe in a literal hell where God sends people to be tortured for eternity.

Heck, I used to think that getting to heaven and escaping hell was the ultimate goal.

In many ways I was the perfect poster child for Evangelical Christianity – my theology was on point and mixed into it I could bring a congregation to its knees with a sermon as I encouraged them and showered them with the love and grace and mercy of God.  

And everything was very black and white for me – Christian, non-Christian; good, evil; light, dark; right, wrong; a right way to read the Bible, a wrong way to read the Bible; a right way to understand a verse, a wrong way to understand a verse; gay, straight; believe in Jesus = heaven, don’t believe = hell; good theology, bad theology.

In seminary I graduated at the top of my class with a preaching scholarship.  I had all but memorized (cover to cover) my systematic theology books and could argue pretty much any position on any topic and have it anchored in so many Bible verses that I’d make your head spin.

Pro-Life.

LGBTQ.

Divorce.

Alcohol.

Pre-marital sex.

You name it – I could take a stance on it and win. It’s ironic now, but I see so much of myself in so many of the people I encounter on various social media platforms – people who have an arsenal of Bible verses and like a lawyer in front of a jury can argue their stance by stringing together this verse and that verse and this verse and that verse to build an impenetrable wall of logic and certainty, all grounded in so much anger and the need to be right that they aren’t even open to the idea that there might just maybe be another way to understand the issue.

That used to be me.  

I was the guy who would go to church as a seminary student, hear something the pastor said that put up my “that’s bad theology radar”, and would go home and spend hours in my books researching all the reasons as to why he/she was wrong.  Then I would take that research and jam it way into the back of the filing cabinet in my brain so that I could take it out at a later time to sideswipe some unexpecting person who held an opinion different than mine.  

But then something changed.  Granted, it’s been a process.  There is no definitive moment when everything began to change and deconstruction kicked into high gear, but there is this one story from what feels like ages ago that sticks out in my mind as the moment or season of my life where I at least began to ask questions (most of which I kept to myself for a long period of time).  

About 10 years ago I was 2 years out of seminary and 2 years into a 3 year stint at pastoring a church in New Jersey.  It was an old Dutch Reformed Church, which is basically the birthplace of all things theologically conservative and a place that very well mirrored by “black and white, the Bible is a rule book, don’t you dare mess with how I understand God” mentality.  

I remember one time I preached a sermon that touched on the debate of what theologians call “predestination”, which (taken to the extreme) is this idea that God decided before the creation of the universe …

What would happen.

When it would happen.

Who would “believe in Him”.

Who would go to heaven.

Who would go to hell.

So, in essence, God knew a bazillion years ago that Dana and I would have a miscarriage a few years back and also decided (a bazillion years ago) that my friend who is an atheist would be an atheist and would, therefore, have no chance of going to heaven, but would be destined to rot in the fires of hell for all of eternity.  

To frame it into the context of Pavlovitz’s book:

God decided long ago who would be welcome at the table.

AND.

Who would not be welcome at the table.

I used to believe that.  Like, at one time in my life (again), I had ALL of the verses, ALL of the arguments, ALL of the answers and if you took a view or a side that was anything different than that – I would destroy you.

BUT.

For whatever reason, I remember this topic of predestination coming up in a sermon series that I was taking the church through and in one particular sermon I remember saying something along the lines of …

“I’m just not sure it works that way.  Like, I’m just not 100% sold on the idea that God was picking names out of a hat bazillions of years ago and deciding to send them to hell bazillions of years before they were even born or had the opportunity to say or do anything that might actually be pleasing to God.”  

I didn’t say it’s not possible. (Although, now I would.)

I didn’t say I didn’t believe it. (Now I would.)

I didn’t say it’s not Biblical. (Now I definitely would.)

… I just said that at that moment in my life I wasn’t sure.  Maybe I once was or I used to be, but I wasn’t 100% sold on it in that moment.

Now when the sermon was over and I went back to my office, I’ll never forget it.  There was a woman from the congregation sitting in my office with a book in her hand and a scowl on her face.  She handed the book to me and basically said that my theology was in need of some tweaking if I was going to continue preaching in their pulpit and that I needed to learn how to speak the hard truths of the Christian faith to the people of our church because that’s what a real pastor does. 

She said a few other unkind things and then left.

And I remember thinking to myself, “this just doesn’t feel right.”  Like, “that was weird.”  In my heart I knew that I USED TO BE that woman.  Like I said earlier, I used to be the guy who would get so worked up by a pastor saying something that I thought to be “bad theology” that I would get my books out and approach that pastor to set them straight.  

But.

I guess when it was done to me and I was on the other end of it and I could see the anger in her eyes along with the pride on her face and her refusal to see things differently.  I don’t’ know.  It just felt so gross to me and I as I flipped through that book that she left in my hand about how God is angry and sending people to hell left and right.

Eh.

Something rose up in me and shouted, “NO.”  I just couldn’t stomach the idea that a good God who is supposedly represented in the life and person of Jesus would hand pick real life people who had real life names, stories, backgrounds, and dreams to spend eternity in hell.

And more than that, I couldn’t imagine a God represented in Jesus NOT having a seat reserved for everyone at His table.  I couldn’t imagine God telling lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, and people who believed differently than me …

“Sorry.  You’re not welcome here.  I decided bazillions of years ago that you’d go to hell.  BYE.”

… Because that’s exactly the OPPOSITE of the God I saw in Jesus.

Like I said last week – if Jesus came to represent a God who is exclusive so much so that He’s sending a large part of the human population to hell because they are believing the wrong things.  Well.  Then Jesus did a really lousy job at representing that God.

“This is ridiculous”, a small voice in my head said; and as best as I can tell it’s that small voice that cracked open a very small door in my heart and mind that sent me on this path of deconstruction / reconstruction over these past 10 years.

Fast forward 9 years later to October 2017 when I took a class at Alliance Theological Seminary and met a professor named Bo Sanders.  Bo was teaching a communications class that I was in and he was talking about the Gospel, the Good News, the Bible, Jesus, God, faith, and how to talk about all of it in 2017.

All of that was well and good except I noticed something different about him.  (Very different.)

He wasn’t like all of my other professors.

Like, he didn’t talk like they did.

He didn’t use the same language as them.

He didn’t use the same tone as they did.  

He didn’t quote the same authors that they did.

This guy was different.  It was a 5 day class that met for 8 hours a day and on day 1 I spent all 8 hours in the back row with my friends, half listening and half texting my wife who was back home with our 7 month old daughter.  

BUT.

Then he started to quote authors I had read over the last 10 years that I knew were frowned upon by my tribe of Christians and a fair amount of people who were in the classroom with me that week.

Rob Bell.

Richard Rohr.

Peter Enns.

Brian McLaren.

He never really used their names, but I knew I heard the content that he was presenting and I knew I had read it in their books. 

Suddenly he had my attention.

For the next 4 days I sat in the front row with my phone zipped up in my backpack and my fingers typing every word that came out of his mouth.  And on the 4thday of class I worked up the courage to approach him during a break when I said something like …

“I’m not 100% sure how the dean let you in here or how in the world you convinced him to come in here and talk about the things you’re talking about.  And just so you know, 99% of what you’re sharing is going straight over the heads of my fellow students, but for me it’s scratching an itch that’s been itching for the last 10 years that NO ONE has been able to scratch.  I need more of this.  I need more of you in my life.  Help.”

Bo and I have been talking for the last year and a half. We even did a self-directed study together as my final elective for the doctoral program I’m in.  We talk on the phone, text, connect on social media.  And I credit Bo with giving me the permission to open the door in my heart that the small voice ever so slightly cracked open some 10 years ago in my office at the old Dutch Reformed Church after that woman in my congregation dropped that stupid book in my hand, told me that I needed to preach about an angry God who predestined people to hell, and stormed out the door.  

And so here I am, a year and a half after that class and 10 years after that morning in my office typing away on the keyboard of my Macbook Pro, getting ready to record episode number 28 of the What If Project podcast, and looking forward to interviewing some authors this year who have written the books that I’ve been secretly enjoying for the last 10 years.

Truth be told …

I no longer think that God is wrathful.

I no longer think that Jesus died to save me from God’s (non-existent) wrath.

I no longer think that LGBTQ is a sin.

I no longer think that pre-marital sex is the greatest sin (or maybe even a sin at all?).

I no longer think that pro-life is the correct position to hold or that pro-choice people are evil.

I no longer think that the death penalty is OK.

I no longer think that the Bible is a rule book or a guide book of sorts.

I no longer think that in order to get to heaven I have to believe the right things about Jesus.

I no longer think that getting to heaven and escaping hell is the ultimate goal.

Heck, I no longer believe in hell as a place of eternal damnation.

Much of what was carefully constructed over my 8 years of Christian school, 4 years of Bible college, and 5 years of seminary has been quietly and carefully deconstructed over the last 10 years, heavily deconstructed over the last year and a half, and now is slowly and steadily being pieced back together and reconstructed into something beautiful and needed in the world.  

I certainly haven’t arrived – let me say that loud and clear.  And I certainly don’t have everything figured out.  Truth is, I have more questions than I ever had before and I’m more uncertain about God and faith and Jesus and what it all means than I ever was before.

Even so, though, I find that oddly comfortable.  I find it oddly comfortable to take my place in a long history of God followers who (from the stories of the Bible) seem to have spent much of their own lives and much of their time trying to figure out who God is, what He’s up to in the world, and what it means to follow Him.

Some 2,000 years ago, though, Jesus came and showed us what it all means.  He showed us that to follow God and to be like God means to make your life into a gigantic table of sorts that welcomes anyone and everyone to come and to be loved. No stipulations.  No ifs, no ands, no buts.  It’s a table that has a space reserved for everyone, a space that is never revoked, never given to someone else.  It’s a table where laughter ensues, tears are welcomed, and the outsiders are brought inside.  There is no place at the table for an angry God who predestines people to hell, but there is most certainly a place for a loving God who refuses to give up on or throw anyone away.

I tell you all of this to bring it back to Pavlovitz’s book – this deconstruction / reconstruction has created in me a deliberate intention to build a bigger table and to keep expanding it so that it becomes bigger and bigger and bigger.

And that’s exactly what I intend to spend the rest of my days doing here at the What If Project and whatever might be after that, and after that, and after that …

Much love, friends.