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Presbyterian pastors and educators hear tales of terror from one who’s learned to right-size threats

John Pavlovitz equates his own fear aboard an airplane with that of the disciples in the storm-tossed boat

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Tom Barrett via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — When he flies, author, activist and pastor John Pavlovitz is a little like the disciples on the boat with Jesus when it was being rocked by a storm. On a flight to Albuquerque, Pavlovitz, the keynote speaker for this week’s gathering of the Association of Partners in Christian Education, heard the captain announce there’d be some turbulence.

“I know that’s captain-speak for, ‘We are about to be shaken like a snow globe in the hands of an angry toddler,’” Pavolvitz told the crowd gathered online and on site for APCE’s national gathering, being held this week in Birmingham, Alabama. “I flew here from Raleigh, North Carolina, with a simple message: Hang on. Prepare yourselves, because turbulence is coming. I am a bit late. Turbulence took the earlier flight out, didn’t it?”

Pavlovitz has witnessed two kinds of fear responses in his home whenever a thunderstorm is bearing down. As recently as a few years ago, his dog would hop into the bathtub while his daughter, then 8, would scream, hyperventilate and sob. “One is unable to move,” he observed. “The other is unable to rest.”

“None of us are immune to the debilitating side effects of fear, are we?” he said. “We are still inherently shakable people.”

The “positively gut-punching” thing about fear is the way it matures right along with us. When he was 5, Pavlovitz was “deathly afraid” of one of the Muppets, he confessed. Now 53, “I have made my peace with my Muppet adversary. I am no longer afraid to walk along Sesame Street at night.”

“We don’t discard fear as our traveling companion,” he said. “We just trade in our terrors for more appropriate models,” like fearing a job loss or a relational collapse or dying alone. “We are always potentially at the mercy of the storms around, and the storms within, too.”

John Pavlovitz

Being unable to move during the storm like Pavlovitz’s dog or unable to rest like his daughter “are not places God desires for us. We are allowed to visit fear, but we are not allowed to live there,” he said. “Fear comes from feeling we cannot control our circumstances. I realized I was powerless to change the conditions on that airplane. I cannot preach the plane into being still and knowing.”

Aboard that boat, the disciples “are overtaken even though they have Jesus as their traveling companion. They have seen him heal, restore and do things that defy belief, and they still became overwhelmed by their circumstances,” Pavlovitz said. Put another way: “They allow what they see to make them forget what they know.”

Doing that in our work and in our ministry can be a barrier to our rest, he said. “Maybe you need to remember what you used to know, what you once believed,” he told the 500 pastors and educators gathered in Birmingham, with another 150 or more joining online.

“Have you ever thought, I wish I hadn’t signed up for this,” he asked the crowd. “To follow Jesus is often to choose the path of greatest resistance. The Bible is many things, but it’s not a commercial for ease and comfort.”

Back in that boat, Jesus had the storm “right-sized,” according to Pavlovitz, in the same way the pilot had the weather threat right-sized while guiding that jetliner into Albuquerque. Indeed, “our challenge is to right-size the threats, to cultivate a peace bigger than the threat. The question is, how much of the storm do we allow to be placed within us?”

While Pavlovitz hasn’t found anything to help his dog find comfort in the storm, he did strike on a solution for his daughter, who’s now 13. A few years back he suggested, “Let’s go and sit on the porch together.” She sat in his lap while he — following a quick online search — told her how thunder and lightning work. Her breathing slowed and her heartrate returned to normal, he noted. She began to enjoy the storm.

“Now when there’s a storm, she asks me to sit on the porch with her,” he said. “I did two things for her. I right-sized the storm and I gave her my presence. ‘Do not fear’ is the most common command in the Bible — and the one we follow the least.”

“Fear, grief and doubt are in the storm, and yet peace is in the boat,” he said. “Don’t allow what you see to make you forget what you know. In the back of the boat, find peace and rest. Peace, be still. Amen.”

The Presbyterian Mission Agency is in mission partnership with APCE through the Office of Christian Formation. The APCE Annual Event online for Spanish speaking participants was made possible by Global Language Resources in ASG due to a partnership between the Office of Christian Formation and APCE.

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