Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Striving for Real Community

We talk about community often at our church. And I think we do a pretty good job of trying to actually create deep, intentional relationships. But, we must always be aware of the temptation to love talking about community more than actually being communal. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us of this in his book Life Together. Bonhoeffer says this, with special emphasis given to the first sentence:
"He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself."
So, as we continue to wrestle with what true, Christian community looks like, may we be aware that it is easier to love the idea of community more than the reality of community. It's hard to be vulnerable. It's scary to be known. We don't want to risk being shamed. But let's push past our resistance and be willing to step into real, authentic community. Let's get to know each other in deep, profound ways. Let's commit to being there for each other -- in good times and bad. And let's watch and see the beautiful things God does in our midst as we draw closer to one another.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Sometimes Jesus is Just No Fun

One pastor and author I really appreciate is Brian Zahnd. I follow him on social media, love his books, and when I find the time, enjoy listening to his sermons. This past week, however, he posted a few thoughts on Facebook that I'm really struggling with. It's not that I don't agree with Brian -- I do -- but I'm struggling with the fact that sometimes the message and ministry of Jesus is JUST SO HARD. I don't like my life and my faith to drag me out of my comfort zone and be so challenging. But that's exactly what Jesus does. Here are a couple of Brian's most-recent thoughts:
"When we choose to forgive those who harm us, instead of perpetuating the cycle of revenge, we become a living imitation of Jesus Christ. As we do this we help flood a world hell-bent on paybacks with a forgiveness that washes away sin. The world is full of a lust for vengeance that fuels our conflicts-from petty quarrels to deadly wars. Christians are called to opt out of the game of getting even."
"If Jesus' call for his disciples to take up their own cross and follow his example doesn't mean that Christians are to renounce violent retaliation in favor of forgiving love, then I have no idea what it means."
Yikes...those prophetic words are hard to hear! I don't want to have to forgive those who harm me. I don't want to have to lay aside my quest for violent retaliation. I don't want my faith to stretch me so far and make me change so much! And, unfortunately, so much of what Jesus teaches and models for us is incredibly hard.

But I also know, despite its difficulty, that the way of Jesus is the best possible way of living. I know that the hard things that Jesus invites of us are actually good for us and the world. So, Brian's words -- reminding us of the hard things that Jesus calls us to -- have me thinking about a future sermon series called The Hardest Things, where we would spend time exploring and learning about the hardest things that Jesus asks of his followers. I've added it to my "sermon series" list and you can be assured that it's coming sometime in the next few years.

But until that day comes, here's to being willing to do and say the hard things that Jesus challenges us to do and say. It's not an easy journey we are invited into, but I'm so glad to be journeying the way of Jesus together with all of you. Here's to being willing to do the hardest things.

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 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.