Monday, July 27, 2020

A Life of Gratitude

If you’re like me, it easy to get bogged down, during this time, with the new stresses, anxieties, and inconveniences that regularly bombard us on what seems like a day-by-day basis, if not hour-by-hour. There’s family worries and work worries, church worries and school worries. There are events canceled and decisions postponed and new information to digest with each passing day. There are extra problems to solve and plans to make and children’s emotions to care for…all while the normal responsibilities of the daily grind continue to demand our attention.

It can all be too much to handle.

But, in the midst of this overwhelming time, what I’m trying to foster today is a spirit of gratitude. Despite the craziness and chaos that Covid has brought us, I’m finding that there are still reasons to be grateful. Despite the difficulty of living, parenting, and pastoring during this time, there are still a plethora of reasons to pause and give thanks.

I have a job. There’s food on my table each night. My family is healthy. No one from our church has gotten sick. I mean, there’s even little things—like the fact that we’ve had beautiful weather for each of our outdoor worship gatherings thus far.

Just in the last 10 days alone, I've been able to spend time at Templed Hills, play softball, ride mountain bikes, and have picnics, play games, and go for walks with my family. Life is hard right now, in so many ways...but it's also really good.

I can get bogged down with the burdens and neglect the blessings.

So, during this season, would you join me in striving to pause each day and give thanks to God for the blessings of this life? I’m not good at it…so I need your help. Let’s be committed to an awareness of God’s goodness and a posture of thankfulness. Would you join me in striving for a life of gratitude?

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

By Whatever Means Necessary

In my sermon on Sunday, I was forced to leave out one idea due to time—but it’s still worth mentioning. I preached about a fun and familiar story in Genesis 28, where Jacob is running from his angry brother, lies down to sleep for the night, and proceeds to have his infamous dream about a stairway to heaven. In short, he wakes from the dream, realizes that God has been in his life all along and he wasn’t aware, and his life is forever altered.

There’s an interesting idea from this story, however, that I didn’t have time to explore. I find it fascinating and noteworthy that Jacob is used to being so controlling, conniving, and manipulative, but this encounter with God happens when he has no control over the situation: while he is asleep. Jacob is a trickster; shyster; scam artist. He’s constantly working the angles, taking advantage of people, and finagling his way into things he doesn’t deserve. He’s used to always being in control, but here, this encounter just happens to him. He has no say over it.

This whole incredible encounter happens while Jacob is asleep. He finally has no control; he’s not in charge; he can’t trick his way in or out of this one. It’s like God is saying, “If you won’t stop masterminding your life and your world (which, by the way, isn’t working), then I’ll just have to enter your life through some other way. I’ll have to visit you when you can’t control the situation.”

Which makes me think of Romans 8:28 – “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” God doesn’t necessarily make all things good, but He is relentless in His effort to work for the good of His children—and that’s what He’s doing with Jacob. If Jacob won’t give up his control and stop his abusive and manipulative behavior on his own, then God is willing to get creative in how He might get Jacob’s attention.

This little subplot of the story helps remind us that we aren’t ultimately in control anyway, so we might as well not try to be. God will not relent. He will never stop pursuing us—beckoning us back into right relationship with himself and the world—the same way the Prodigal Father never stopped pursuing his wayward son. And God will use whatever means necessary to finally get our attention.

Jacob is invited to finally stop running—to surrender to God’s will and way—and that is our invitation as well. May we never have so tight of a stranglehold on our own lives and agendas that we are unable to hear, see, and sense God’s often-gentle tug on us to live into his better plan.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

A New Center

"The Church is not to be found at the “center” of a left/right political world. The Church is to be a species of its own kind, confounding both left and right, and finding its identity from the "center" of God’s life.”
~ Rich Villodas ~

I can’t get this quote out of my head. It’s from over a year ago, but is even more relevant today as our country is more politically divided than ever and we rapidly approach another contentious election. 

It is difficult to understand and embody our social and political roles in the world as Jesus followers, both individually and collectively. We (sometimes subconsciously) ask ourselves silly questions, like “How would Jesus vote?” or “What political party would Jesus prefer?,” usually in an effort to justify our own side. Most of us wrongly assume that Jesus would be on *our* side of the political spectrum—that our party’s platform is the most biblical and spiritual. And even those who avoid this false dichotomy of seating Jesus in the front row of one party’s national convention or the other, often find themselves arguing that the politics of Jesus are actually found somewhere in the center of the American political spectrum—essentially contending that Jesus was a Moderate.

But Rich Villodas’ quote from above reminds me that Jesus’ platform was not to be found on any human-made political spectrum. Jesus transcended the patterns of the Roman world into which he was born. His way continues to baffle, surpass, and overshadow the ways of the world. And His church is called to do the same.

"The Church is not to be found at the “center” of a left/right political world. The Church is to be a species of its own kind, confounding both left and right, and finding its identity from the "center" of God’s life.”

We don’t play the games of the world. We march to the beat of a different drum. We are invited into a new, strange, counter-cultural way of being human. And this oddly beautiful, provocative, and enticing way of life all originates from a center grounded in the will and way of Jesus.

We’re not called to just sit the fence between two polarized parties; nor are we to avoid the political realm altogether. Instead, we are invited to enter the divided and divisive fray of how the world is best organized as a different sort of animal, rallied not under an allegiance to the power-hungry ways of the world, but the lovingly sacrificial ways of God. 

The church is a strange breed. We follow a different authority, live under an alternate set of ethics, and adhere to a distinct set of practices. As Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat write in their shockingly brilliant book Colossians Remixed, “In our worship we tell and retell another story than that of the republic, hear another word proclaimed, eat an alternative meal of remembrance, pledge allegiance to another sovereign, and sing hymns, psalms and spiritual songs that set our imaginations free for another way of life, another politics.” Which is why we continue to gather together each week, as the book of Hebrews instructs, because each time we do, we remind ourselves and declare to the world that there is another way of existing—a better, more kind, just, and loving way of existence.

So, in this season of tension and strife—with a crazy election approaching, church members on alternate sides of every issue, and even families divided over party platforms—may we, as followers of King Jesus, not fall prey to the temptation of choosing one broken, human system over the other. Nor may we find ourselves comfortably perched in the center of this political divide, refusing to actively engage our world. Instead, may we double down on our commitment to being a new kind of people, with God’s life and Jesus’ way firmly rooted as our center. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Rethinking 'Viral' Church

To begin, I need to offer three confessions. First, none of this article is based on hard data, but rather, on speculation. As I’ve lived and pastored through this pandemic, I’ve found myself curious about how churches are operating now and how they might function moving forward. Then secondly, I must own up to my personal preference for small churches over large. Of course, I’m biased as the pastor of a small church. But I also fundamentally believe that small church is a better way to function as the body of Christ than large. And thirdly, I’ll be painting with very broad brush strokes here, as not all “large” churches are created equally and have the same priorities.

That said, here’s what I've been intrigued with lately. I wonder if larger churches will start to reshape their ecclesiology (their way of doing church or their thoughts on how church should be done) as a result of this viral pandemic. I mean, they have to, right?! In a globally connected world where goods, services, and ideas, including a virus, can be spread throughout the world in a heartbeat, I would think large churches would need to rethink their methods of cramming as many people as possible into as large a room as possible to have as great an impact as possible. It’s a noble ambition—the attempt to reach as many people for Christ as possible—but it just doesn’t seem like a feasible or wise model for ministry in both the short- and long-term. 

I would think these large churches would need to re-strategize for how they might reach people and do ministry differently in a world that can be so quickly infected and affected.

But then that thought led me down the rabbit hole to the next one—this time a critique of the large church model. I began wondering about the idea of a “virus” or things going “viral” as a metaphor for the way the church-growth and megachurch movements think about the gospel and church. I think you could accurately say that megachurches (and the churches that aspire to be them) want the gospel and their churches to go “viral.” They want their ministry and influence to blow up quickly, to take off like a flash. They want it to spread like wildfire, reaching as many people as humanly possible—multiple services, large sanctuaries, and a massive online presence.

And again, I don’t think this impulse begins from a bad place, but this desire can become sickening really easily and quickly. Reaching the world for Christ is certainly a noble pursuit, but the aspiration for ministry to go “viral” can easily become self-gratifying, shallow, and sometimes even toxic. The goal can easily become growth for the sake of growth, rather than the fulfilling and expanding of God’s Kingdom. People tune in from the fringes, but often fail to plug in deeply to the way of Jesus and the life of the church.

Not to mention the fact that this “viral” ministry model seems contrary to the ministry of Jesus. For Jesus, the metaphors he uses to speak of the gospel and the kingdom are mostly agricultural. You till the soil and plant the seeds. You water and pray for sunshine. It takes a while and requires much patience. You don’t see instant success—or sometimes any success at all. But that’s the way the gospel grows: slowly and steadily. 

That’s the way Jesus went about his ministry, patiently and persistently. A few followers here, a few miracles there, a sermon or two sprinkled in on occasion. He wasn’t in a rush. His ministry was far deeper than it was wide, with Jesus even encouraging people to keep quiet about his work for fear it would spread too quickly. When crowds would clamor to him, it only took a quick reminder of the difficulty and demand of the gospel for the multitude to rapidly reduce. There was nothing “viral” about Jesus’ ministry.

And that’s the way the early church grew as well. Sure, there were times where 3,000 or 5,000 were added to their number in a day, but the church still spread through small, local, hidden house churches. They organized themselves to be able to care for real needs, sharing all things in common and joining together daily for worship and the breaking of bread. That sure doesn’t sound like a ‘viral,’ megachurch mentality to me.

The gospel or the church going “viral” most likely means it’s not taking root deeply, here today and possibly gone tomorrow. And churches going “viral” probably means that those people will catch the next viral bug that comes along—the next big, trendy church—and off they’ll go, infected by the next strain of ‘viral’ church.

But the beautiful irony is that a virus could be the very thing to help churches see the problem with their viral ecclesiology. We are being forced to slow things down, spread people out, and not continue the incessant sprint of ‘viral’ ministry toward church growth. And I intentionally used the word we, there, because even small churches aren’t immune from the lure of viral ministry. But my sincere prayer for all churches during this time, and especially large ones, is that we would recommit to the ministry of Jesus—a slow, intentional, deeply-relational way of being with people that grows incrementally by emphasizing the depth of the few instead of the breadth of the many. Let’s stop worrying about going ‘viral’—the rapid growth of butts, bucks, and buildings—and be more invested in the slow, steady, often unnoticed and unheralded work of loving our church, our neighbors, and our community—the flourishing of our world.  

Monday, June 22, 2020

The Hard Work of Becoming Better

It’s hard work improving. It’s not always easy becoming the person we were created to be.

Maybe I’m no worse than most, but I’m the kind of person who generally prefers to take the easy or fun way when it comes to any obstacle or challenge. I’d rather ride the chair lift with my bike or skis than ‘earn my turns’ through a grueling uphill. I’ll run, but only if I’m dribbling a soccer- or basketball. Give me the fun of rock climbing over the taxing ascent of mountain climbing any day. If I can avoid the hard work and still get the fun, I’ll do that all day, every day.

And that’s true for me emotionally, relationally, and spiritually too—as I constantly push back against the difficulty of development, the inconvenience of improvement.

I was thinking about that part of my personality again last night—as I was dying after mile two of five on a long, arduous climb on my mountain bike. I don’t like to work hard. I have no patience for things not going well or simply. I love it when life is easy and fun. It’s best when everything just works out nicely and neatly.

But, of course, that’s rarely how life goes—and certainly not the way progress and maturity work. Growth is a grind. It takes effort and intentionality, humility and hope, perseverance and patience. And usually (and unfortunately) it takes sacrifice and surrender. If we want to be a better person, spouse, friend, and neighbor, it’s going to take effort. If we want to grow in our faith and follow Jesus more closely, it’s going to be costly and challenging.

But, of course, the hard work is worth it.

Despite the fact that I despise the difficulty and detest the needed dedication, the grueling grind is always worth the effort. You get to that peak, take in the beauty of God’s creation, and then get to soar down the mountain in sheer delight. You agonize over those papers and cram for those exams, but you one-day find yourself walking across that stage to receive your diploma. You suffer through the hard work of breaking that habit, fixing that relationship, or starting that new practice, only to realize that the end result was absolutely worth the work.

And even when the finished product isn’t perfect or great or even good, I almost always find that the arduous journey was still worthwhile—that something profound and transformational happened through the process, not just in the product.

So, even though it’s easier to remain stagnant, not change, and never push ourselves to be better, let’s remain committed to the lifelong process of growth and discipleship—of mastering the art of living and becoming more in-tune with the ways of God’s kingdom. Let’s be willing to do whatever hard things are required of us to grow and mature in faith.

Paul tells the Philippian church that “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.” That sounds like pretty good advice to me. So, let’s be intentional about focusing on the ways of God and disciplined to do the hard work it will takes to become, even more, the people of God.

Monday, June 8, 2020

An Existential Exhaustion

I’ve been unusually tired lately, and until last night, I couldn’t figure out why. I’ve been going to bed earlier than usual to combat my fatigue, sleeping in a little longer, when I can, to battle against this weariness, and even recently had a week of vacation at our cabin to relax and refresh. Yet I still feel tired and worn-out, constantly dwelling in a state of exhaustion.

And it’s been confusing to process and challenging to verbalize, because it’s not just physical tiredness I’m experiencing—it’s also some sort of spiritual and emotional fatigue. The best way I’ve found to describe what I’m feeling is existential exhaustion—being tired, worn out, and depleted at my core. But I wasn’t able to understand and name why this was happening until last night, through a conversation with Mandy.

I think it’s all connected, for me, to Facebook.

I’m not alone in this, but the last three months of my communal and pastoral life have been spent on social media. I’ve been almost exclusively a phone-based friend and an online pastor. Facebook has been my home—my primary connection to the outside world, including the congregation I serve.

But as you all know, Facebook, now more than ever, is a place of divisiveness and hostility. Everyone has an opinion, no one is agenda-less, and most people hold their opinions with far-too-much certainty. So, when you combine that with the fact that misinformation abounds, from all parts of the political spectrum, it makes for strange and strained relational dynamics. Facebook is a dangerous place to live right now, rife with political, racial, and social landmines that might explode with any false step.

And that’s what I find to be existentially exhausting.

I’ve only just begun to recognize it, but as a human, friend, and pastor, I’m finding it downright draining to navigate the information and misinformation, opinions and reflections, posts and comments of Facebook on a minute-by-minute basis. As someone who seeks to avoid the fray of partisan politics as much as possible, has family and friends on both sides of nearly every issue, and who pastors a church of immense political diversity, I’m finding it incredibly difficult to know how to be faithfully and pastorally present on Facebook.

If someone shares an article or a comment that I agree with, how do I respond? What message am I sending through a ‘like’ or a comment? Is that the message I want to publicly display?

If someone shares or comments in a way I disagree with, how do I proceed? Do I push back? Do I let it go? And then if I do let it go, I find myself mulling over what I *would* have said had I *not* let it go?

And what do I personally share or not share? Or if I share something or comment and someone pushes back against me, do I respond or let it go? And what do I say and how do I best say it?

It’s all very confusing and frustrating. But what I’m just now realizing is that it’s also quite debilitating. It’s stealing my soul, robbing my energy, and distracting me from what’s really important. I find myself thinking about these questions way too much, and it’s taking a toll on my body, mind, and soul—not to mention my ability to be present and attentive to God, my family, my friends, and the world.

So, I’m stepping away from Facebook for a little while, to give myself space to rest, heal, and focus on what’s really important. I need a social media detox. I’m deleting the Facebook app from my phone and will only use it for my job, including live streaming our worship gatherings. Any Facebook posts you see will have been automatically linked from Instagram, which is a fun resource for connecting with friends and not an exhausting platform for debating and arguing issues. I have no idea how long this Facebook Fast will last, but I’m excited to see how my body, mind, and soul might heal from this existential exhaustion.

[Note: if you want to reach me, please do so via phone/text (406-581-0749), email (jasonbowker1@gmail.com), or Facebook Messenger]

Friday, May 22, 2020

The Reward of Prayer

I’ve found myself praying a lot more than usual during the last few months, but the prayers have been different. Often my prayers are bold, brash, and pragmatic, asking God to provide something or do something or help me out in some specific way. Then I sit back and see if the prayer gets answered. And some of my prayers during this time have been like that—like “God, would you end this virus.” But most of my prayers during this period have been different: more simple, honest, and communal—like “God, I need you” or “God, please help” or “God, thank you” or “God, give me wisdom.” It’s as if the peculiarity of this time has stripped down my prayer life and named the truest parts of my relationship with God.

Our audible and/or conscious prayers can often be fairly selfish prayers of petition, where we’re asking God to provide something for us. And I think that’s because we don’t really know what else to talk to God about. But I think if we were able to acknowledge and name the truest prayers of our hearts—the true desires we wish to express to a power greater than ourselves—we would more often find ourselves praying these simple, beautiful, communal prayers. We would pray like the psalmist, saying, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts.” Deep in our inmost parts, we really just want to know God and be known.

Which is what Jesus says will happen when we pray sincerely.

In Matthew 6:6, Jesus offers us these instructions about prayer: “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

Now, at first glance, that sort of prayer still feels like a bold, brash, and pragmatic prayer of petition, where we ask God for something and then await our reward: the answer to our prayers. But that’s not exactly the picture the Greek word for “reward” (apodosei) is trying to convey. The word literally means “to give back” or “return.” So, the pray-er gives something…and then God gives it back or returns it. Which, what does the pray-er give? Nothing more than time, attention, dedication, and complete presence. So then, that is the ‘reward’ we get back from God; the thing he gives back or returns. Sometimes God responds to our prayers of petition with practical and tangible answers. But God always responds to the deepest, simplest prayers of our hearts with time, attention, dedication, and complete presence.

And the point I’m making about God’s “rewards” is only further confirmed through the next section of text about fasting, where Jesus uses the same Greek word to once again say that we will be rewarded for fasting—which the reward here is clearly not physical or practical, but can only be meant in terms of God’s time, attention, dedication, and complete presence. When we are present to God through fasting, He is present with us as well. And the same is true in prayer.

So, the point I’ve not-so-succinctly spent nearly 700 words to arrive at is simple: when you pray, especially in this time, allow your prayers to be simple, honest, and real, tapping into your deepest and inmost parts. Because the reward for these prayers is intimate community with the Creator of the universe, your Father in heaven. Yes, we should pray bold, brash, and pragmatic prayers for God to do the miraculous in our world. But Jesus’ wisdom for us in this time (and beyond) is to primarily be people who spend their prayer life in simple, honest, and communal time with God, because when we do, we will be rewarded with God’s very presence—including his comfort, peace, assurance, and hope. He rewards our prayer lives through giving back. When we lean into Him, He leans right back. He meets us in that place and rewards us with His very self.

So, may you lean into God’s presence during this time of uncertainty and stress, and truly sense God returning the favor.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Celebrating the Ascension

Today, in the church calendar, we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus—which is an often-neglected holiday, but one worth considering.

Essentially, this is a day of empowerment. Jesus told his disciples—including us, as his present-day disciples—that they would do even greater things than him. But that can’t happen with him around. Time after time, the disciples turned to Jesus to teach, help, heal, and feed people, rather than doing it themselves. And nothing has changed. I want Jesus to do the miraculous, but often fail to step in and be the miracle people need.

Jesus leaving earth is liberating and enabling. He is still with us in spirit, but leaves the world in our hands to do the things he’s been doing, bless the people he’s been blessing, and form a community of love like he’s been forming. Jesus’ ascension is his bold declaration to us that “you’ve got this!” He believes in us to be the church, empowered to do the ministry he left behind. So, let’s get busy teaching, helping, healing, and feeding.