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APCE welcomes its keynote speaker, pastor and author John Pavlovitz

The guy who writes ‘Stuff that Needs to be Said’ shows early on he’s worth listening to

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Sincerely Media via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Writer, pastor and activist John Pavlovitz’s latest book is called “If God is Love, Don’t be a Jerk: Finding a Faith that Makes Us Better Humans.” He writes a blog called “Stuff that Needs to be Said.” He sees our world through the lenses of kindness and empathy, and his many talks around the country are infused with both.

“Hey, APCE,” Pavlovitz said during the first of four plenary talks he’ll deliver to the Association of Partners in Christian Education during their annual event, which kicked off Wednesday in Birmingham, Alabama. About 500 people turned up in person, with another 150 or so joining online.

“I do a lot of speaking and a lot of listening. I’m a collector of stories, a war correspondent,” he said. “People give me proximity to their pain. They show me their grief and reveal to me their dreams, and I do my best to bear witness to those words.”

“Because of the work you do,” he told the gathered educators and pastors, “you too are collectors of stories, and stewards of stories.”

“What burdens are you bearing witness to? What are the trending stories in your head?” he asked the crowd before having them call out what’s been their default emotion of late. Despite the theme of the gathering — “Unforced Rhythms of Grace” — educators identified these qualities: frustration, confusion, distraction, despair, grief, anxiety and fear.

John Pavlovitz

“APCE, we’re in trouble,” Pavlovitz said.

That same flood of emotions is also present in the communities where participants live and work, he pointed out. “I don’t need to tell you this,” he said, adding that conference-goers are well aware of what’s going on in their community “because you’re one of the damn-givers. APCE, it’s exhausting to give a damn, isn’t it?”

Jesus notices that as well, he said. “You’re carrying the names and faces and lives and stories of people under duress right now, in pain because of systemic ills” including racism, homophobia and misogyny. “These stories accumulate in your body. They reside in your sore shoulders and your clenched jaw, in your elevated heart rate an in that knot in the pit of your stomach every time you watch CNN or go on Twitter.”

When Jesus invites us to rest, “he assumes weariness,” Pavlovitz said. “You feel the heaviness of these days.” But present with their APCE siblings, “you are right where you need to be.”

He asked those hearing his talk to remember the story of the genesis of their own ministry. For Pavlovitz, it began 25 years ago when he and his wife were worshiping in a church in Pennsylvania. “I was wrestling with deep theological questions, like where would we eat and could the Eagles’ offensive line handle the Giants’ defensive pressure?”

A woman tapped him on the shoulder and said, “John, I think you would make an amazing youth leader.”

“I said, ‘I know you,’ Pavlovitz recalled. ‘You’re the present youth leader.’”

Pavlovitz had two desirable qualities: “I was young and I was there.”

“She said, ‘Come hang out at youth meeting tonight,’” he said. “At the time, I was an agnostic with suspicions. But I discovered I loved working with students. I was like a demented storm chaser: ‘That looks horrible. Let’s go there!’”

As he stayed with it, “something miraculous happened: my faith began to grow,” he said. Like the disciples before him, “I left the safety and security of the shore and boarded the boat.”

“That invitation and that story can be your greatest teacher, if it gets a little help.”

Pavlovitz called remembering “an inherently spiritual act. It can help us reclaim our ‘why’ and our ‘how.’ Most of all, it reminds us of the sacred proximity we have in the trenches of this life.”

“On this first day together, remember your initial invitation to go to the other side,” he suggested. “Prepare to unearth what’s happened since then and get ready for what’s coming on the journey you have not seen.”

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