Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Diversity as Witness

[I recently spoke at a concert celebrating diversity in our community and world. The following is the manuscript of my speech.]

Good afternoon. And thank you for allowing me to be a part of this special service. My name is Jason Bowker and I’m the pastor at First Baptist Church…just a block from where you’re currently sitting. I had a little ambivalence when Kathy asked me to speak about diversity… since I’m a WHITE, MIDDLE-CLASS MAN…but I’m excited to share a few thoughts with you.

This afternoon, I want to talk about diversity as WITNESS. You see, our faith lives are meant to be public; on display; for all to see; a witness and testimony. We’re meant to live our faith outside the walls of our sacred buildings. We’re meant to be on mission out in our neighborhoods, community, and world; testifying to the good news of a good God; working toward the flourishing of our place and an abundant life for all we encounter there. I fervently believe that we have good news that our world desperately needs to hear—that a good God loves them dearly. So, we have the task of sharing this news. Our faith is to be witnessed.

But it’s not always easy to share this great message…largely because the world is an incredibly diverse place—even here in Bozeman. It’s not easy to engage well with our neighbor—it takes work; it takes intentionality; it takes commitment. Which means it often doesn’t happen…because it’s just easier to disengage. But that’s why diversity in our churches is so important. We often aren’t good at engaging with difference…simply because we haven’t had the opportunity to practice. It’s too hard to encounter the other in a real, significant way…so, instead, we choose to place ourselves in safe, comfortable echo chambers…or at least I too often do.

That’s why diversity in our faith communities is a necessity and a blessing as a witness to a better way of engaging with one another. I’ll say that again… diversity in our faith communities is a necessity and a blessing as a witness to a better way of engaging with one another. When we gather for worship, community, and service in our diverse churches…this is an opportunity to learn, grow, and practice cultural and community engagement. The church…at its best…is a laboratory for loving the other…a chance to hone our skills of blessing, peace, forgiveness, and listening. It’s challenging to do these things out in the world, so when we gather we get to practice in a safe, loving environment. When we’re a part of a diverse congregation, each gathering is a place to practice radical hospitality and continue to work with God in restoring and redeeming all things.

And finally, I believe that faith communities—both internally and one to another—should be leading the way in demonstrating to the world a better way forward in engaging with difference. So…when we are in communities of diversity…and we choose to gather in worship and community…despite our vast differences…and we engage with one another in peaceful and hospitable ways…and still love, support, and pray for one another this incredible way of living BOLDLY and BEAUTIFULLY declares to the world that a different way of living is possible. We become an amazing testimony to the world about how to engage difference with civility and love. Diversity becomes a witness.

So, may we be people who surround ourselves with diversity. May we listen, learn, and really engage. And may this embrace of diversity become a beautiful witness to the world of a better way forward.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Celebrating the True MLK

I find it interesting that, over the past few years, EVERYONE seems to suddenly love Martin Luther King, Jr. He's quickly become a national hero -- with near saintly stature in our country. He has his own national holiday, his own monument in D.C., and nearly every group of people in America has come to revere Dr. King. And rightfully so. I am ABSOLUTELY thrilled that he's now receiving this attention.

But I find it strange, since it wasn't that long ago that very few people knew about Dr. King's life and legacy...or even cared. Growing up, I knew that Rosa Parks had a bus seat and Dr. King had a dream, but that's about as far as my history classes ventured into the Civil Rights Movement. And in his own time, he was wildly unpopular. A Gallup poll in 1966, just two years before his death, shows King as having only a 32% approval rating in the country. He was hated and opposed by so many people, including the FBI, that he was eventually assassinated. And yet today, King's approval rating is at 94%.

What has happened, unfortunately, is the sanitization of Dr. King's legacy. We have forgotten how radical and subversive King's message actually was, and too often succumbed to simply tweeting out a nice, catchy quotation. Again, it's fantastic that more people are learning about Dr. King and celebrating his life and work, but personally, I want to make sure I'm actually remembering the actual thrust of his message and ministry.

I want to remember how fervently he fought for the poor and the marginalized, the outcast and the downtrodden. I want to remember his courageous struggle for equality and justice for all, regardless of the color of your skin or the neighborhood in which you grew up. I want to remember how he stood up against the 'powers that be' when they had turned their backs on those with no power. Jesus set the tone for us, Dr. King admirably followed in his footsteps, and we are called to do the same. May we be people who honor King's legacy by continuing his work -- the hard, radical, gospel-centered work of striving for peace, justice, and equality for all.

I'll close with the profound words of one of my former pastors, Eugene Cho: 
"Don't reduce Martin Luther King Jr. to a yearly quote on social media. Live out the dream. Confront evil. Speak up. Seek justice. Love mercy. Pursue reconciliation. Build bridges. Love your neighbors. Forgive your enemies. Pray unceasingly. Live a committed life of peace, love, and justice. The God who deposited this dream into MLK is still speaking to us today. Be brave."

Monday, January 8, 2018

Cherishing Each Moment

[this post was written over the Christmas break at the end of 2017]

Over the last week I’ve found myself thinking about the importance of savoring the moment and living life to its fullest. Christmas is a natural time to think such thoughts, and embarking on a new year helps too, but a few specific things have happened in my life recently that have me pondering what really matters in life.

First, I’m writing this article while sitting in North Dakota, surrounded by Mandy’s family. In fact, I’m literally surrounded by her family: my nephew, to my left, playing a very noisy game of Angry Birds on the iPad; my sister-in-law, to my right, talking about her Facebook feed; and the kitchen, behind me, full of conversation and laughter while lunch is being prepared. And I wouldn’t want it any other way! We don’t get to see Mandy’s family very often, so when we are together, I always find myself thinking about the significance of family and life and love…about what’s really important in this world.

And secondly, Mandy and I have a friend who lost her mother to a heart attack on Christmas morning. So, I’m mindful of the frailty of life—of how quickly and easily it can slip through your hands—and I’m increasingly grateful for the blessings God gives daily and I’m committed to basking in God’s goodness and offering the grace of God to everyone I encounter…with a newfound sense of urgency.

So, as we ring in the new year and look forward to what 2018 has in store, may we be committed to savoring each moment, relishing each relationship, and appreciating each opportunity. May we wake up each morning grateful for the blessing of life. May we constantly remember that every moment matters.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Missing the Epiphany

This Saturday is the Christian holiday 'Epiphany' - the celebration of the Wise Men bringing gifts to Jesus a few years after he was born. We don't get all the details of the story, but it must have been incredible. While going about their daily routine, the Wise Men see an amazing star in the sky and are suddenly compelled to travel hundreds of miles to pay homage to a baby. They had an epiphany.

But the thing is...an epiphany is only an epiphany if you recognize it.

If the Wise Men hadn't noticed the star and hadn't responded with a road trip through the desert, it wouldn't have been an epiphany. They never would have warned the Holy Family of Herod's evil plan. Mary and Joseph never would have fled to Africa. And cosmic history would have been altered. Thank God the Wise Men were paying attention and were courageous in response.

I wonder how often I miss out on the epiphanies of God. 

How often is God doing something incredible in my midst and I'm totally unaware? How often do I miss the miracle, majesty, and wonder of God's work in the world...too distracted or neglectful to witness the presence of the Almighty shining like a beacon into our world? 

In this season of the year, as we celebrate Epiphany and remember the Wise Men, may we be committed to an intentional awareness and receptivity to the ongoing epiphanies of God. May our eyes, ears, and hearts be open and attuned to how God might be showing up and what God might want to reveal.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Longest Night Service // First Baptist Church

 While the holiday season is often fun and festive, for many it can be full of painful memories and tearful nights. During this darkest season of the calendarand perhaps on this longest night of the yearplease use this liturgy as an individual or family to help you reflect on the pain, grief, and anger you may be experiencing during this season and how God can still comfort you with Gods hope and peace.

Opening Words / Call to Worship

We cry to the Lord who counts and collects our tears.
Be with us now.
In our grief and our pain, our bodies and spirits cry out.
Hear us, O Lord. Amen.

Prayer

The days are short. The nights are long. Lord, your universe mirrors the reality of our hearts, revealing your gracious spirit that mourns with us in grief, cries with us in sorrow, sits with us in despair. You are not a distant God, removed from human pain, but a faithful companion closer to us than our tears. Help us to feel your presence now as we remember and reflect, seeking your healing touch and the hope that was promised and delivered in Jesus Christ your Son. Amen.

Lighting of the Advent Candles (any candles would do)

[Reader 1]:  We light these candles in thanksgiving for loved ones lost,
                    for past health and joy that now seems distant.
[Reader 2]:  We light these candles in prayer, that we will feel Gods love
  in our present sorrow.
[Reader 3]:  We light these candles in hope, for the promises of God to be revealed.
[All]:            Glory to God. Amen.

Scripture Readings

Psalm 13 

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, I have overcome him,
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.


Psalm 61:1-4; 62:1-2 

Hear my cry, O God;
listen to my prayer.
From the ends of the earth I call to you,
I call as my heart grows faint;
lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
For you have been my refuge,
a strong tower against the foe.
I long to dwell in your tent forever
and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.

62:1 Truly my soul finds rest in God;
my salvation comes from him.
Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.


Psalm 139:7-12 

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.


Psalm 23 

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.

Sermonette: a short video from Pastor Jason


Charge and Blessing

May Jesus, the lifethe life that is light for all people
      shine in your heart.
No matter how small, no matter how dim, that light
      will stubbornly shine.
And the darkness will not overcome it.
Go in peace, with courage to face the coming days
      with hope, with God by your side. Amen.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Needed Attitude Adjustment

[a post from Monday morning...]

Mandy and I sat down for a family meeting last night, to make sure we are on the same page, because this week is incredibly busy. Here's a brief snippet of what this week holds for me and my family: three worship services to prepare, two sermons to write, Bible study to lead, three rehearsals and a concert for Mandy, final details on the church Christmas program, attending Zoe's school Christmas program, shopping for the Angel Tree, and a night of Christmas caroling. And that's just some of our calendar.

So...of course...my car broke down this morning and I can't get it into the shop until Wednesday. 

Of course! Perfect timing, right?! In a week filled with ministry and life and events and chaos, our family is suddenly down to one vehicle for a few days. The timing of life can be cruel.

But I promise I'm not writing this to complain. Rather, I wanted to show you my emotional process throughout the day in an effort to better help us all cope with the difficulties of life. Over the past few hours I've gone from perplexed and paralyzed to angry to anxious. I had plans for how my week would go and suddenly those were totally out of whack.

So what did I do next? I tried my best to slow down, calm down, pray for peace, and ground myself in the simple truth that it's all going to be okay. Life's not over. Things will work out just fine. I'll still get all my work done this week. Ultimately, this is a pretty minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of life. 

And then after that, I set about to not let this inconvenience rob me of the week I had planned...which for me included playing basketball this afternoon. So, since I couldn't drive to my destination, I looked up the bus schedule, hopped on the bus for as long as I could ride, and then walked the rest of the way. And now, I'm logging off to go play basketball...committed to not letting a bad situation and my bad attitude steal life away from me. Here's to a great week!

Monday, November 27, 2017

Forgiveness as an Advent Practice

This Sunday is the beginning of the Advent season - four weeks of preparation for Christ to enter our world anew. Advent is a season of hopefulness and anticipation. We can't wait for God's incarnation into our existence. But Advent is also a time of darkness, pain, and lament. In this darkest time of the year, we long for the Light of the World to radiantly burst forth, because the darkness feels too heavy and all-consuming. Sin and corruption are rampant in us all, people are at odds with one another, and sadness and loneliness too easily overwhelm. Things are not right.

To some degree, our calling is simply to wait. Advent is a season of waiting; of hopeful anticipation that help is on the way. And yet, we are also called to actively wait; to seek solutions to the problems we have inherited and created. 

One form of active waiting that I have been thinking about recently is the long-lost art of asking for forgiveness. If the world is not the way it is meant to be, and if we have some role in that outcome, then one massive step forward is the willing submission to the humble process of apology and forgiveness. Is there something you have done that has hurt someone else and you need to simply say sorry? Is there a way you have contributed to things not being right where you need to repent and ask for forgiveness? Are there relationships in your life that have gone askew, where you could be the bigger person, own your part of the blame, and seek reconciliation through contrition?

During this Advent season, may you be willing to take the bold first step of seeking restoration. May you own your mistakes, say you're sorry, and see if the incarnated God can begin to redeem some of the brokenness of the world...one relationship at a time.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Clinging to the Right Things

an old picture of Zoe clinging to what
actually matters, our friends' dog, Daisy
A few weeks ago I had a really interesting experience with Zoe. It was bedtime and she was obviously quite tired, so I decided to carry her to her bed (which I don't do as often now that she's not a baby anymore). As I was carrying her downstairs, she wrapped her arms tightly around my neck, nestled her head onto my shoulder, and I held her tightly in a warm embrace. It was a precious, special moment.

But then suddenly she realized that she had not grabbed the stuffed animals she was planning to sleep with that night, so we turned around to go find where she had last put them. The tragedy of the story is that as Zoe continued to fill her arms with an immeasurable number of animals, she was suddenly unable to cling tightly to me in a sweet father-daughter embrace. We had lost the cuddly connection we had once shared, and I had now become no more than her preferred mode of transportation from one place to the next.

Hoarding our possessions (our money, things, clothes, time, energy, and skillsets), can often force us to sacrifice more important things. We cannot serve two masters. We can't serve God and money. Like Zoe in the story, clinging so tightly to the things we own can distract us from more significant things or people that are right under our noses and can rob of us of the life God intends for us.


During this season of thanksgiving and gratitude, may we learn to loosen our grip on the things we own and the endless desire for more. May we be more aware of the things in life that really matter. May we recognize that the God of the universe is desperate to hold us close, shower us with blessing, and remind us of our God-given value. And during this frantic season of American consumerism, where a meal of the thanksgiving quickly gives way to Black Friday shopping, may we not let anything distract us from our first love...the God who loves us dear and holds us near.