Preach On: Dr. Gilbert Bowen Keeps The Faith

Does heaven exist? Where’s the love? Do I count? How will I ever cope?

For some, as one frigid Chicago winter day morphs into the next, these eternal questions crystallize into the frost of faltering hope. For many others, they dangle like ornaments in the back of the Christmas tree, out of sight but ever-present.

And yet, for everyone, uplifting answers exist, insists Dr. Gilbert W. Bowen, whose opinion on such weighty matters merits strong consideration. Now entering his sixtieth year in the ministry, Dr. Bowen served from 1970 to 2007 as senior minister of Kenilworth Union Church, the oldest Christian nondenominational church in the country. He has catalogued more than three thousand sermons and authored six books. For many thousands—either ushering in their life or marking its passing, as well as at points both joyous and wrenching in between—he has been a steady mooring.

In “retirement,” he has slowed, but only by degree. At eighty-three, he continues to travel and lead tours on three continents; minister during the summer to a congregation at his second home in White Lake, Michigan; officiate at the occasional funeral, wedding, and baptism; occasionally preach and lead lecture series at Presbyterian Homes’ Westminster

Place in Evanston, where he and Marlene, his wife of sixty-one years, live; and oversee the Gil & Marlene Bowen Christian Outreach Fund, an endowment fund created by Kenilworth Union upon his retirement and from which he dispenses one hundred fifty thousand dollars a year to several dozen charitable organizations. And in this spare time, he can often be found in his study at Westminster Place, surrounded by walls of books, which may help explain why the otherwise disparate likes of T.S. Eliot, Albert Schweitzer, and Paul Tillich were effortlessly quoted alongside the Apostles during a recent breakfast sit-down with Chicagoly.

But back to those questions, starting with the big one. Does heaven exist?

“We talk about heaven as a place where we want to be, no matter who we have to put up with,” says Dr. Bowen, with his signature smile and chuckle. “I don’t think that an authentic religious faith has much to do with geography.”

He rests more in the words of the New Testament, in which heaven “is something you should hope for,” continuing: “It is an issue of whether one can approach death with some hope that there is more beyond. I would rather live with that possibility in the back of my head than I would the notion that if you really believe there is nothing beyond, then this whole crazy mess seems sometimes hardly worth the effort.”

On the subject of love, Dr. Bowen points out that the Biblical notion of it is at odds with Western culture.

“Love is not rapture and fire. It is not Hollywood,” he says. “Part of our problem is our language. We use the term ‘love’ to cover a variety of different human postures. The Greeks at least had different words for it. If there is a word in English that comes closer to what the New Testament is talking about, it is the word ‘caring,’ because it doesn’t mean ‘I like’ or ‘I’m drawn to’ or ‘I want.’ It means ‘to care for.’”

Love, he goes on, “is a hand steadier than one’s own, squeezing harder than a heartbeat. … Love is as near to each one of us as someone who needs us. And there is always someone who needs us. This is why we are here, for the love that does not insist on its own way in life, that not only hopes and believes, but that bears and endures the sufferings and the needs of those with whom we share life’s way.”

Like love, so too is the Biblical concept of self-worth counter-cultural, Dr. Bowen points out. “One of the most fundamental questions a person can ask about himself is the question: Do I count? Is it important that I am here? Am I worth anything? Our culture tends to indicate that worth lies in what we can do, good or bad. It tends to assign worth according to what you pull off.”

But Biblical faith sees human worth in quite different terms, he says, affirming that it is not earned but intrinsic, and rests not in what we do but in what we are: “children of God.”

“From the day of birth until the day of death and even out beyond, we are loved and valued by the one who creates us and to whom we belong. This stands certain no matter how the world, even our intimate others, at times seem to assess us. …

Only such an anchor amid the shifting fortunes of life enables us to do and give as we are able, not to prove or promote ourselves, but out of simple gratitude for the gift that life is and remains.”

Dr. Bowen issues blunt but hopeful words when it comes to the reality of personal setbacks and loss.

“The truth is, life is one string of very real losses. And I have become convinced that how well we learn to lose has more to do with the quality of our life than any other wisdom,” he says. “We can walk backward through life, longing for what once was, or we can learn the secret old Paul learned from his Lord, the secret of life as death and resurrection.

“He calls us to see life as a continuum of death and resurrection, for each death some new ascent to fuller life, for each loss some new gain of greater living. … Life is made up of loss—loss of the seasons of life, loss of self with its demands, and the loss that comes with suffering. But there is also, out beyond each of them, again and again, resurrection, new life.”

During Dr. Bowen’s tenure at Kenilworth Union, the congregation grew from four hundred to three thousand two hundred adult members with a church school of one thousand children. To understand his approach to sermonizing, as reflected above, is to help explain that growth and his continuing appeal. The process of crafting a sermon, he says, often begins with the question, “What questions are the congregants asking?” As well, he keeps “religious jargon” to a minimum and long ago eliminated the word “you” in favor of “us.” Then there’s the task of conveying Jesus’ relevance in today’s world, which he does by connecting the struggles and priorities of everyday people to Jesus’ teachings.

“Part of the problem with our culture is that it is very difficult for us to believe that someone two thousand years ago had some wisdom about how to live life in the twenty-first century. The addiction to the new and the avant-garde dominates the culture,” says Dr. Bowen, who has three children, seven grandsons, and two great-grandsons. “Too much of the focus of Christianity has been not on Jesus the man and the teacher who said things that are important to hear but on the last week and the horrors of the crucifixion, which are important but really are not seminal to what he himself felt was important. One of my attempts as a preacher has been to make people take him seriously as having something to say, not just to hang there and bleed.”

Asked what he most hopes congregants will get from his sermons, Dr. Bowen has a ready response: “Thought, as over agreement necessarily. One of the common responses I get is, ‘I’ve been thinking about your sermon last week.’ That pleases me. I find it very gratifying that the words I write and speak continue to provide hope and comfort and challenge. The reward for me has been the kind of continuing conversation with people about the concerns and issues confronting them.”

As for those for whom church is a nonstarter, Dr. Bowen offers these words, from a 2005 sermon.

“So easily life slips into a routine devoid of excitement and enthusiasm. … It is all too easy to become flat and one-dimensional, devoid of inner spirit and life. And I don’t think the problem, renewal of life, recovery of vitality, can be solved by some psychological technique, some quick read, some change of diet or routine. I think we make headway against the flatness, the hollowness of mood and mentality only by—are you ready?—only by turning again and again to our God. But I cringe the minute I say that, because in the hands of hucksters that has taken on cheap and tawdry meaning.

“So let me say it differently. The recovery of God in our lives means the recovery of the experience of depth, richness, excitement in life. That is why some of us return Sunday by Sunday to our place of worship. Not to be lectured about our failures, but to be stimulated to life again.”

On a cold winter day, words to consider.

About the author

Alan P. Henry is a New York Times bestselling author, six-time national fiction contest prize winner, and thirty-five-year newspaper veteran with the Chicago Sun-Times, Boston Globe, Boston Herald, and now, 22nd Century Media.

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