McCormick Theological Seminary Legacy of Leadership Award
Delivered by Diane Hart
I have the pleasure and honor of paying tribute to a man who connected me with McCormick Seminary many years ago, and who played a significant part in life decisions that I have made, including a faith based not for profit second career, but mostly in shaping my faith in God. And to be honest, this is a little bit daunting, as I know there are many of you here tonight that feel the same way, and who have been inspired by Gil throughout his almost 40 years serving as Senior Pastor at Kenilworth Union Church. It is my hope that through my words and a few stories that each one of you will recognize your own moments where Gil has impacted your life’s decisions and everyday interactions with others.
Gil has planted many seeds in each of us, and I think this may go back to his own story that he shared with our youth in one of his Think About It sermonettes. I am sure you all remember his Youth Sermonettes. I actually think the adults looked forward to them just as much as the youth did.
In this particular one entitled Proceed Gil said, “People sometimes ask me when I decided to become a minister. Well, I’m not exactly sure when I decided, but I can tell you what gave me a push. I had a minister named Larson, Pastor Larson, in Lakeside Baptist Church in Muskegon, Michigan. I can still remember the big farewell party they threw for him. Now, why am I telling you this story? I was young, maybe thirteen, and on the way out of church each Sunday we walked by Pastor Larson and shook his hand. One day he said, ‘Well, Gil, maybe someday you’ll come back here and be a minister.’ That was the farthest thing from my mind. I couldn’t imagine myself doing that, speaking in front of people scared me to death, but it planted a seed.” The sermonette did continue on, but I would like to stop here and personally thank Pastor Larson for planting that seed, because Gil, you obviously overcame your fear of public speaking and you went on to emulate Pastor Larson by planting thousands of seeds yourself.
There are so many things to say about Gil Bowen. He and Marlene were an amazing team in all that they did together, raising three wonderful kids; Kathy, Mark, and Steve, then adding their spouses; Bob, Margot, and Marnie, and having seven grandsons and now two great grandsons. They grew Kenilworth Union Church from a congregation of 400 to 3,200 people. They put together wonderful educational trips abroad for adults. They empowered us to reach out and serve others through their own examples, and each Sunday Gil offered us hope and inspiration through memorable sermons.
And through those sermons, Gil, you taught me that a good message should contain three main points, using real stories, some personal, some historical, and some humorous. So tonight, I will do my best to follow your example. It has served me well over the years in professional speaking engagements and personal letters. I can only imagine the number of people that have been inspired to write or speak publicly after listening to you for almost 40 years on Sunday mornings at Kenilworth Union where you wrote 40 sermons a year, or the 40 years at the Wabaningo Club in White Lake Michigan where you also crafted 40 questions as a basis for your sermons, questions that you had struggled with in your faith, thinking it might be what others were struggling with, an inspiration you had from Paul Tillich. And is it coincidental that there are so many 40 numbers in your history? So biblical, I think, and I learned that from you, Gil, in Bible study—146 references in the Bible to the number 40. Forty represents a generation or a long period of time, and so it is with you and your impact over a long period of time and with multiple generations.
Over this long and distinguished career Gil, you have offered us inspiration and hope, you have educated us, and you have supported and empowered us. You have been a man about sharing God with people, inclusive of all, no matter where there were in their faith journey.
There is probably no better way to summarize the hope and inspiration that you have instilled in us, other than to repeat the phrase I have heard from so many in our congregation, and words that I have actually used myself as we would leave church and greet you saying, “Gil, I feel like you wrote that sermon for me today”. There were Sunday mornings that it was raining or I had a cold, or I just didn’t feel like going out, but I would rally myself over a cup of tea or coffee, because I didn’t want to miss the sermon. And I know it wasn’t just me that felt this way. And if we were out of town on a given Sunday, my mother-in-law would surely remind Bill and I that we had missed a good sermon.
And we didn’t want to miss the sermon, because each Sunday you sent us out knowing on Monday we would have a new set of tools for the coming week, to deal with difficult world news, or to face difficult health or family situations. You would not only share God’s word, but his word through the voice of leaders and educators like Lincoln, Bonhoeffer, Niebuhr, Buechner and of course the everyday voices of Charlie Brown and Erma Bombeck. Your messages are so well researched and thoughtfully crafted. I now understand the reason why good preaching ministers have so many books, not only at church, but at home, or up at the lake. I love that you also kept a joke file, because in those inspirational messages we not only listened, or teared up, but we laughed.
And you also inspired us with music, as you inspired the building of the foundations of Kenilworth Union’s music program today. I can remember singing in the choir in your early years and having you attend practice on Thursday nights along with Marlene and then joining us singing on Sunday morning. And no one minded if you left your mike on as you sang hymns. And no one will forget listening to you sing your German solo each Christmas Eve.
I’d like to share another Youth Sermonette as an example of the inspiration that you shared with us. It’s called Go For It, “I ran into something the other day that I wanted to pass onto you. Henry Moore is one of the greatest sculptors of our time. If you ever go to the University of Chicago you can see a sculpture there that symbolizes the birth of atomic energy. It is by Henry Moore. He was asked on his 80th birthday by a friend, ‘Henry, what do you think the secret to life is?’ Henry very seriously responded, ‘the secret to life is to have some task, some labor, some work that you can devote your entire life to, something that you can bring all your energy to, your whole life long. But, the most important thing he said is that is has to be something that you think you cannot possibly do.’ That surprised me. When you think about it, some of the most worthwhile things in life that you confront are the things you think you cannot possibly do, aren’t they? … Well, you can go ahead and name your own impossibilities, but they are the very challenges that make life worth living, are they not?”
Gil, for someone who was afraid of public speaking, I think you indeed found your own impossible task and then made it your life’s work.
In a broad sense of the term, educator, a good educator, is someone who helps us build a foundation so that we can think on our own and come to our own decisions. Gil has definitely demonstrated himself as an outstanding educator throughout his ministry. He not only did this each Sunday in the pulpit, but he offered his wisdom in many other ways; traditional classes and small groups, but also experiential through his many travel programs.
These programs were for youth as well as adults. Gil and Marlene led over 11 youth trips for over 570 high schoolers behind the Iron Curtain to expose them to varied cultures and life styles with limited or no freedoms. I know there are some in this room tonight that remember very clearly those meaningful trips. Gil also met with high schoolers one day a week for donuts before classes just to check in with them, to talk about things they were dealing with at school or with friends. And for the young ones, he made a point of meeting each year with each grade level after school in his office. He knew the importance of making the connection with our kids and helping them to build a good foundation of faith in God.
For adults he offered a Bible study three times a week so that all would have a chance to participate. Not only did these Bible studies lay a foundation for us and some engaging dialog, but it helps bring the scriptures alive for us on Sunday morning. Others participated in book groups with him for stimulating discussions. I remember once an overflowing sanctuary for a book we all pressed him to discuss for which he reluctantly agreed to review. You may remember Dan Brown’s book, “Da Vinci Code”. We all wanted to know his take on this book. But in his educator style, he filled in some of the historic pieces for us but left us thinking for ourselves.
Some of his greatest educational programs were the many trips he led to Israel—30 times. I had the privilege of accompanying Gil on one of those trips where I remember deeply moments when he served us communion in the Upper Room, or when we floated in a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee, or when we visited the tomb of Abraham and Sarah in Hebron. There were other trips like the “The Footsteps of Paul” through Turkey and Greece, or trips to Africa or Austria, or Germany for the Passion Plays, or the trip that got cancelled to Israel for safety reasons and they went instead to Egypt, Jordon, Syria, and Lebanon….Think about the irony of that today. On those trips he educated us by setting the stage, giving us the historical background, and then letting us, each in “his or her” own way—experience it.
Gil as an educator is best described in some of his own words that he wrote for the introduction of his book; Thoughts in Passing, “We are commanded to love our God with all our mind. My intention is not to impose on you any particular view with respect to the faith we share, but more to stimulate you to think with me as I have tried to think about my faith, in my struggle to be faithful.”
Gil you have inspired us, and you have educated us, and you have also supported and empowered us.
Through the Gil and Marlene Bowen Outreach Fund you have reached many that are in need of basic necessities and support. Some are local groups serving the Chicagoland underserved, or Waukegan’s Church of Joy that offers programs for over 2,000 children, or many faith-based groups abroad. Your hands have literally reached across the continents as you hand delivered cash to those in need, in Africa with the Kipharts helping to build wells, and in Europe funding ministry and education. In another of your Think About It, Youth Sermonettes you have a line that says, “The teacher realized that she was the hand that had made the difference in his life.” Well, your hands, and Marlene’s hands have made those differences for so many people.
It isn’t just about the monetary support that you have provided, but also the empowerment you have provided for so many especially in our congregation. You are a man “about others” through your support and encouragement, sometimes straight up asking them to do something.
I will share one of those personal examples with you. One Wednesday about 30 years ago you sat down next to me at the Women’s Guild Group and I shared with you that I had recently been made aware that other churches in other states were offering Mother’s Day Out programs and I thought Kenilworth Union should consider doing this, too, hoping you would ask the staff and/or the Board of Trustees to follow through on this. With a very straight face you looked at me and said, “Well, Diane, start one for us.” And then 3–4 years later you came to me and said, “I think you should turn this Mother’s Day Out program into a Christian nursery school”. And then it was my turn, and I looked at you with a very straight face and said, “But we don’t have playground space, and I can’t imagine how to get through the DCFS regulations.” For which you responded, “I think I can get you some playground space….”, and A Joyful Noise Preschool was conceived.
You empowered me and so many others. You empowered Susie Kiphart to write a full children’s Sunday school curriculum and to build wells in Africa. You encouraged the Board of Trustees to read the book, The Seven Day a Week Church”, stimulating a two-day long-range planning retreat that encouraged inclusiveness through programs offered all week long. And you always supported your staff to try out new ideas.
For 40 some years you encouraged and empowered us all to give generously of our time and talent.
Weeks ago when McCormick Seminary asked me to deliver the tribute for you, Gil. I didn’t hesitate at saying yes, but later, admittedly, I thought it was one of those Henry Moore things that I could not possibly do. So Mr. Moore’s thoughts of “some of the most worthwhile things in life that you confront are the things you think you cannot possibly do”, went through my mind. And after re-reading most of your books, and listening to so many people’s remembrances, I have thought back on these past 40 years, many of them working directly with you, and I realized that putting this together has been such a gift. And as Mr. Moore said, so very, very worthwhile.
I would like to share one more of Gil’s writings with you before I close this evening. It is a piece out of his book Thoughts In Passing. It was written before 2000 when this book was published, but I thought it was an example of how timeless and universal and profound his “words of wisdom” are:
But do we not live most days by the things that are seen? We pick up the morning paper or flip on the television and there is the world we will count reality for another day. And what kind of world is it? Is it not a world where economic or political forces hold sway or where human selfishness and greed seem in control? Or is it not a place where accident and chaos often seem to carry the day? Is it not an arena where faith and values seem to count for little and we as individuals seems particularly powerless? That is the world we see, and if we are not careful, live by and in.
But what if this is not the whole story? What if a more ancient and honorable view is the real story? What if something is going on right now, not only in our own interior life, but also out there in the larger scene, something unseen but powerful, shaping our real future as individuals and community, as a nation and world? The foundation of real faith is the conviction that the invisible mystery we call God, is Lord of history and he is at work to establish his rule over the human community. But he does it not by fiat or supernatural intervention. He does it by his spirit. Like the wind, invisible and powerful. Like breath breathed into each one of us.
God works his way in our story, but not apart from us. He does it in and through all those who have faith and courage to live by the unseen, the real power of God, the power we see in Jesus. And what kind of power is that? Not the power of force and coercion, but the power of sacrifice and service. The power of God is the power we see in his cross, seemingly weak and ineffectual, but in reality the lever that has and will continue to shake and shape the entire human story until that kingdom we pray for does come on earth.
To live by the unseen is to live by the faith that there is more going on than what we read and see, more that is hopeful and helpful than cynical and despairing will ever know, more to make this God’s world than all the manipulations of humans, however evil or well-intended. To live by the unseen means the confidence that we are part of this movement that is making tomorrow.
Gil, this is a beautiful example of the hope and inspiration that you have shared throughout your ministry, how you fed your flock each week. These are the words that enabled us to go out into the world and help to make it a better place.
To quote Albert Schweitzer; “At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.”
So I will end this tribute the only way I can end it, and that is to say thank you on behalf of all those here tonight and the thousands of people you have impacted through your years of ministry. Thank you for your inspirational messages of God’s grace and hope. Thank you for the knowledge you shared through your ongoing reading, research and travels, and thank you for your support, enabling us to accomplish so much at church, in our everyday work life, and most importantly in our families.
Through your legacy of faithful leadership, Gil, you have left each of us a legacy of hope.