“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;
and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.”
~ Isaiah 55:1-2

With these words, Jesus moved Jamie and me to seminary in 1999. I had no idea what depth these words held for a lifetime of being fed and delighted by Him!

Almost five years ago, Jesus moved us again into a season of following Him into a greater unknown than ever before. Just before inviting us out of the public pastoral ministry I remember explicitly saying, “Jesus, I’m willing to lay down my life for Your mission, but I’m not willing to lay down my life for this.” I think what I meant was that the work, not only of the local church I served, but the Church in general in my culture, seemed to no longer be serving the feast that supplies life. I know that’s a big accusation…and I was a part of it. And I was starving because of it.

Church in general in my culture seemed to no longer be serving the feast that supplies life…and I was starving because of it

I won’t be able to tackle the depth of this topic in one blog, but today I just want to start with what Jesus has been reshaping in me these last 4+ years about the nature of His living body – the Church.  In my tradition (Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod), there is a great divide right down the middle about this very nature of what God is doing and how we respond when we gather. In the middle of this divide are real, hurting people who are showing up “without money” to find food for their hungry souls. At the risk of alienating myself from everyone, I’ve noticed a tendency to either burden people with what it looks like to be an amazing missional member of our church, or to burden them with how to believe rightly and purely like us by a certain point in time (I’m sure this is over-characterized…but I’ve experienced both…a lot). We rarely help people find their place at the table, invite them to tell their story, show them how to notice their hearts and minds, and give them time to taste and savor Jesus and His grace for what they notice and what they need.

We rarely help people find their place at the table,
invite them to tell their story,
show them how to notice their hearts and minds,
and give them time to taste and savor
Jesus and His grace
for what they notice and what they need.

I don’t mean to oversimplify a complex issue. However, sometimes stripping away all our pre-formed justifications and “how-we’ve-always-done-it” attitudes, can help us see when we’ve wandered away from this table that is full of free life. I feel like that’s what Jesus has done for me over these last years (I did not accept this stripping away very well). He stripped me of so many of my pretensions and showed me what I had when I lived a life where my heart and soul were buried in the darkness of good, hard work and correct faith – nothing but an empty, starving soul.

I need a table in the Church where I can come without the money of “having it all together” and “my theological ducks always in a nice, neat row.” I need a table where my fears, my doubts, my pain, my guilt, my unrealized dreams, my gifts…where all of me is visible in the light of the One who has set the table, and of the others at the table with me. If I can’t come until I’m theologically perfect or missionally amazing, then the real me never gets to the table to be fed by the hand of God. If I can’t be me-in-process at the table, then who am I supposed to be? Me hiding at the table? Me pretending at the table? Me coming only when I have something amazing to give at the table? Me participating only when I have something theologically pure to say at the table?

If I can’t be me-in-process at the table, then who am I supposed to be?

I know…this brings up all kinds of problematic scenarios, not the least of which is how do you have pastors people can trust are theologically and biblically sound? But here’s an even bigger question: Do we expect that a pastor can live 20, 30, 40+ years without ever needing to fall apart at the table? Learn something new at the table? Have their theology reformed at the table? Have their soul renewed at the table? If our leaders are expected to live a life that doesn’t need the regular appearing of their broken, needy, incomplete lives and theology at the table, what kind of table are we setting for God’s people?

If our leaders are expected to live a life
that doesn’t need the regular appearing
of their broken, needy, incomplete lives and theology at the table,
what kind of table are we setting for God’s people?

God’s table is full. And free. It’s a place to be exactly who you really are and be given exactly what you really need. I don’t want to hide anymore (actually, I do). But I really don’t (know what I mean?). I want to be able to say, “I’m Steve. I have problems. I have addictions. I believe in Jesus, but I regularly believe lies. I need help. I need to be reminded of the truth of what Jesus says about me, and who He is for me. Will you help?”

So I wrote a poem this morning. Maybe, over-simplified, Church can taste like this:

The table is full
Of people and delightful fare;
Full of hearts
Half-empty, pain-wounded, despaired.
Both mingle here
In an awkwardly graceful dance
That fills the people full
Of beauty and romance;
That heals the pain-wounds,
Overflows what was empty,
Resurrects life together
At God’s table of plenty.

14 thoughts on “A Full Table for Empty People

  1. Your story sounds a lot like the story of The Profigal God by Timothy Keller. He says you can come thru moral conformity that says “,I’ m NOT going to do what I want, but what tradition and the community wa ts me to do.”
    The other way is tbruselfdiscovery whosays I am the only one who decides what is right or wrong for me. I’m going to live as I want and find. Y true self and happiness that way.” Despite these the message of Jesus’s parable show both approaches are wrong.” Excerpts from pages 36-38. Its Must read fir pastors.

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    1. Thanks Carol. I love Keller’s writings. They help me keep my eyes focused on the person that is the mission of God’s action and His grace. So much of religion forgets people and the wholeness of who they are and the fact that people are who Jesus came to redeem from darkness and sin and death. God’s focus is on people, and His focus is love.

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  2. Steve, thank you for these words. I am definitely experiencing the struggle of not letting the typical “pastoral expectations” drive me. I like how you point to making room for people-in-process at the table. In fact, that’s what we all are. In starting out my career and living life in a new place, I have definitely experienced some re-formation of my theology. Reading these words led me to rest in Jesus. Thank you.

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    1. I’m so glad it helped you rest in Jesus. That is my desired intent, that I can easily miss when I am led by fear. Thanks for sharing your own story, and may you know and feel the pleasure of God’s feast set for you in the presence of your “enemies.” Love you, brother!

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  3. Anyone who came of age in a Culture of Certainty, say before November 22, 1963 (the day JFK was assassinated), can sometimes find it difficult to doubt the media, the experts, or the Church. I think, in general, politics and email scams have beaten the best parts of that naivete out of our culture, but it feels really risky to doubt your theology or your pastor or your church; and if you actually aren’t certain, you can’t dare to doubt it at all.

    Anyone born in 1972 or later (that’s the start of the Watergate scandal and toward the end of the ongoing, escalating crisis in Vietnam that had started way back in 1955)–anyone born post-Vietnam, post-Watergate grew up in a Culture of Skepticism and can find it unreasonable to trust the media, the experts, or the Church.

    Steve and I were both born in 1972.

    I think Steve is right on, and I love the way he leads with his own vulnerability and struggle while still clinging to faith and hope. That makes him a reliable witness to someone like me. And if we are going to reach real people in an ongoing Culture of Skepticism, I think it will have to lead by combining authentic vulnerability, struggle, and doubt with authentic trust, delight, and dependence on Jesus. Steve, I am on board; sign me and my baggage up for the adventure.

    AND I just want to point out that people raised in a Culture of Certainty may find this adventure almost incomprehensible: why in the world would you want to share your uncertainty? You are supposed to get rid of or hide any doubt, aren’t you? You are making our witness weak!

    At the same time, people raised in a Culture of Skepticism will find the “just believe it” attitude of Certainty to be inauthentic and damaging to the faith: why in the world would you want to hide your uncertainty? You can’t get rid of your questions by hiding them, only by bringing them into the light! You are making our witness weak!

    I believe what Steve says here applies to everyone, not just people born after 1972. As Certainty continues to erode, more and more people who grew up with a cultural knee-jerk to trust will find the world less and less reliable. Even my dear old dad doesn’t download free software or send money to African princes anymore, and hardly any of his friends wire him money when he sends an emergency email from a jail in the Philippines.

    But even though I believe this faith posture is the only viable one moving forward, I want to notice how we are likely to have different reactions to that truth depending on how we were brought up. So there has to be room at the table even for people who think faith and life should be way more certain than they currently are, who love and long form the comfort that comes with confidence AND room for those who are burdened by the standard of certainty and confidence and who are doing the best they can just to cling to hope.

    We might sit at different ends of the table, but we have to figure out how to pass the mashed potatoes. And not condemn the people at the other end who never really cared for the cranberry sauce.

    I love you, Steve. I am with you in this. Let’s go be broken for Jesus!

    PS Sorry for writing a blog in your comment section…

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    1. Ha! I love how your mind works Justin. It helps me make sense of so much of the awkward, and sometimes difficult non-conversations we (the Church) aren’t having, and how we might imagine a new way to have these in a grace space. No apologies needed for the length. Important conversations need time and space for the process to happen. When I started this blog I thought it was going to be about 250 words plus my poem! Ha! Now, I already have 3-5 more blogs on the topic.
      One thing I know God has done with both of us and our families is He has finally made us discontent with systems that don’t allow for this kind of regular conversation around the tables we gather – even to the point of living “undignified” and “unconventional” lives in following Jesus to this kind of table. I’m tired, and excited. I’m sad, and hopeful. I’m scared, and confident that He will bring us to this kind of feast!

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  4. I love this! And I had more to say than would fit in a comment, so here: https://justinrossow.com/please-pass-the-potatoes/

    We experience doubt differently based on whether we came of age in a Culture of Certainty or a Culture of Skepticism. I completely agree with Steve: I think we will have to lead by combining authentic vulnerability, struggle, and doubt with authentic trust, delight, and dependence on Jesus.

    And there has to be room at the table even for those who are uncomfortable with uncertainty.

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  5. Oh my gosh!!! The joy I get when I realize that I get not one amazing blog post, but TWO!!! Love both of you guys so much! Justin, your comments on how we react based somewhat on when we came into this world really hit me between the eyes. Being born in 1951, I fit into your “Culture of Certainty” time frame and I definitely feel what you described. I grew up trusting policemen, doctors, pastors, etc., etc. The past 20 years or so have been tough because I’ve come to identify more and more with your statement, “As Certainty continues to erode, more and more people who grew up with a cultural knee-jerk to trust will find the world less and less reliable.” Life sure was easier back when I had Certainty … maybe not as authentic, though. Lord Jesus, help me put my trust in YOU!

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