APCE plenary speaker John Pavlovitz passes the microphone

Conference-goers express what they’ve been hearing and feeling during the annual event of the Association of Partners in Christian Education

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Sean via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — People attending the Association of Partners in Christian Education’s annual event had a role to play at the start of pastor and author John Pavlovitz’s final plenary Saturday morning: Pavlovitz turned over the microphone and asked them what they’ve experienced since the conference opened on Wednesday.

“This has been a tremendous blessing,” said one. “People with big names and big positions, it doesn’t seem to matter. We are all children of God.”

“You helped me put into words something I knew in my heart,” said another, “when you talked about the wounds we sustain while attending to people.”

“Yesterday, I heard the word that Paul’s churches aren’t here anymore and my church may not be either,” said a third educator. “But Christ’s church is here forever. That filled me to the brim.”

“I’m very happy to be a damn-giver,” said another, echoing a phrase Pavlovitz used earlier.

“I’m struck by the fact that we are called to bring peace to turbulence and sometimes called to be the turbulence,” said yet another.

One man recalled that while living in England as a child, he was the one with a snowsuit. “I would lie in puddles and pretend I was invulnerable to the cold,” the man said. “Isn’t that what ministry is like? That has been the conference for me.”

Continuing to build on Mark’s account of Jesus calming the storm for his terrified disciples, Pavlovitz reminded his hearers that “a turbulence-free existence is not in the cards” but that “weeks like this can bring clarity and comfort. Hopefully, you have been seen and affirmed. Those are wonderful things, but that’s the easy part. The challenge comes now: What do we do when we go back to the ordinary?”

“I don’t want you to forget what you know when you go back out there. It can feel like progress is nonexistent,” he said. Then he wondered: Are we so fatigued by the pace of life and so burdened with expectations and comparisons and obligations “that we have become grace resistant?”

Ministry for Jesus was “a two-step dance,” Pavlovitz said. First, he would engage, and then he would withdraw. “Jesus!” his disciples would call out. “You have a 2:30 healing. Where are you?”

“Jesus went away from the crowds to find rest,” Pavlovitz said. “Then he would come back seeing them with compassion. I’m afraid you will go back and engage, engage, engage,” he told those in attendance, “and never withdraw to your center to recalibrate.”

But “how can we have the nerve to be hopeless,” he asked, “when we’re in the boat with the peace-giver?”

He asked people to sit for a few minutes considering a handful of questions:

  • What has your journey so far taught you about the character of God?
  • What have you learned from the turbulence of your past?
  • What is your testimony about faithfulness and sustenance and provision?
  • What is the gospel according to you? What have your eyes seen and your ears heard and your heart felt?

There is a tether, he said, between “our sense of peace in the present and our ability to be grateful. The former cannot be reached without the latter.”

John Pavlovitz

One day when Pavlovitz’s daughter was younger, she burst into his room while he was busy on his laptop “doing the important work of arguing with a stranger on Twitter.” The girl invited her dad to a dance party. “I wanted to tell her I didn’t have the time. I wanted to say, ‘Daddy is saving the planet,’” Pavlovitz said. “But for some reason I had a moment of clarity and realized, you’re not going to get a lot of these dance invitations.”

She grabbed him by the hand and they sped to her room, where she had rainbow strobe lights at the ready. Her stuffed animals were arrayed to watch the dance. “As we danced in the light of those rainbow-colored strobes, I smiled,” he said. “I didn’t miss life happening as I tried to work for a life that was out there.”

One time at a conference, a man told Pavlovitz he follows two news feeds in his life. One is big and far away. It carries “only the worst stuff, and it’s hopeless.” Another is smaller and closer. It features “the names and faces of people doing beautiful work every single day.”

“If I stay in that news feed,” the man told Pavlovitz, “hope comes easily.”

“Gratitude is something we can hold in this moment,” Pavlovitz said. “It is welcoming the messy imperfections of who we are right now.”

“When things get turbulent, the most difficult place for you to be is the intersection of here and now, and we cannot afford to miss that. That’s where the invitation to rest is — not to stop completely, but to rest.”

Just as for the disciples aboard the boat that day, “arrival comes on the other side,” Pavlovitz said. “They reach the shore and they change the world. They become the peace-givers.”

Days after the shootings that killed 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, nearly five years ago, Pavlovitz attended a memorial service held near where he lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. The service was planned and led by middle school and high school students. “I wanted to be with people mourning like I was,” he said. The students wore T-shirts honoring the dead, hugged those in attendance, and said the names of those who’d been murdered. “I found myself smiling,” he said. “It was the counterintuitive joy of what these students were doing.”

“These young people were doing something defiantly beautiful,” according to Pavlovitz. “One said, ‘I’m really happy to be here today. I woke up today looking for hope, and here you are!’ He reminded us that in the face of violence, our response is to show up in the world and remind each other that good people still inhabit this space, that beauty and love are still present.” Once they’d completed the service, students led mourners on a march to the North Carolina State Capitol.

“I flew to Birmingham looking for hope, and here you are,” Pavlovitz said to a crowd that was about to give him a long ovation. “Rest for a moment,” he said, before offering “peace, be still” answers to a number of challenges many of those in attendance were feeling: to the storms within you … to your mind that finds sleep difficult … to the racism that seems to be running wild: “To you, to you, and to you, peace, be still,” Pavlovitz said. “Amen. Thank you, friends.”

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