We are within one month of this year’s Annual Conference gathering in Middleton, Wisconsin. Time has passed so quickly from last year to this. We are very busy finalizing plans and the packed agenda, distributing all of the materials that contain the business of the Annual Conference session, and confirming all of the many arrangements. Each year, I am deeply grateful to our Committee on Program and Arrangements and our Conference staff for the monumental task they undertake. Annual Conference is a big deal!

Yet, I want to issue a word of caution, challenge, and invitation. While we have much work to do, and many administrative tasks to complete, I want to remind everyone that we are a people of God, doing holy and sacred work to the honor and glory of God. Even in administration, the root word is ministere – humble service. We gather in humility to share our gifts to do God’s work and will. Our focus is much larger than a mere theme – by the movement and power of God’s Holy Spirit, we are made “One with Christ.”

Annual Conference this year was a hopeful and healing time. As a Conference, we face an amazing blend of opportunities and challenges. But for Christians, this is normal. All of scripture recounts such blends of life – the victories and defeats, the successes and the threats, the times of hope and the times of tears. If we are facing the highs and lows of life, we must be doing something right!

At Annual Conference, we worshipped together, ably led by Dr. Marcia Mcfee. This was a time of great praise and celebration, reminding us continuously that in our faith we are “One With Christ.” Adam Hamilton, founding pastor of The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection offered three inspiring teaching times on how we can be more effective together as Church. We celebrated our 13-year sister relationship (stretching back almost 30 years in total) with the Dongbu Conference of the Korean Methodist Church, highlighting that our church is truly global in its reach. And together we reaffirmed our commitment to the mission and vision of our Church as the baptized body of Christ for the world. We were blessed.

Through our time together – in our clergy covenant and in the larger Annual Conference body as a whole – it became clearly apparent that we love our God, we love our Church and our churches, and we seek to be faithful in all that we do. We want to honor and glorify God in all that we say and do. As we continue to “Imagine Wisconsin Anew” – and explore together what it will require for us to “Make a New Wisconsin” – God is revealing an important and essential fact: Wisconsin United Methodists must be a Conference known for justice.

When you give thanks to God in prayer for your many blessings, do you remember your District Superintendent? What, you say? Why would I do that?! I am very serious – your District Superintendent is a gift to your leadership.

In all my experience, I have met and been blessed by many wonderful leaders, but no matter how gifted they were, every one of them had room for improvement and development. A leader can only progress so far by herself or himself. To truly reach one’s fullest potential, guidance, mentoring, supervision, accountability and coaching are needed. Sharing wisdom and journeying in collaboration with a learned partner are beautiful gifts.

This message is mainly for our pastors, but all leaders may benefit by extension. As clergy provide supervision in the congregation, so District Superintendents provide supervision to clergy. Clergy are a part of a covenant community. Yes, we serve a local church or congregations or extension ministries, and we are “the pastor-in-charge,” but we do not do this solo. In our tradition, we are placed “under appointment” and District Superintendents provide leadership, guidance and support to our ministries. They are partners and colleagues, but they are also supervisors who hold us accountable to our covenants of Word, Order, and Sacrament.

Since I came here as bishop, it is the expectation of every District Superintendent to have a one-on-one supervisory conversation with every pastor. Do you see this as a burden or a gift? Our most effective, growing, learning, leading pastors voice deep appreciation for this opportunity and attention. They seek feedback and counsel, and hunger for the encouragement and support that comes from their Superintendent. They also gracefully and graciously receive criticism and critique, knowing that this is necessary for expanded self-awareness and self-improvement. These are emotionally intelligent leaders seeking to become the very best they can be. We are a stronger Conference as we strengthen the relationships of accountability and support.

On behalf of the families who have suffered damage or lost their homes due to the extensive flooding and tornado that touched down in the North West District, and those who are in ministry in the area, we ask for your prayers. As has been reported, terrible destruction has occurred in the Barron and Rusk Counties due to a tornado that touched down, which sadly also resulted in one fatality. Residents in Ashland, Iron, Buffalo, Jackson and Trempealeau Counties have experienced extensive flooding.

At this time, we ask that you refrain from traveling to the area while emergency relief efforts are underway. The Barron County Sheriff’s Office ask that any relief efforts be coordinated through Michael Judy, Barron County Emergency Relief coordinator, who can be reached at (715) 537-5814. Monetary donations can be sent to the Wisconsin Conference Treasurer, 750 Windsor Street, Sun Prairie, WI 53590. Please write the check out to Wisconsin Conference Treasurer, with NW Disaster Recovery #7775 in the memo line. If you want, you can also submit the check in your local church offering, and your church treasurer can send to the Conference Finance office, along with apportionment payment.

Grace and Peace,
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung

Long and anxiously awaited decisions handed down by our Judicial Council pleased some, angered others, and mystified yet others. A full report can be found at UMC.org by Linda Bloom, but the Judicial Council predictably maintained a straightforward and conservative reading of our current Book of Discipline. This is exactly what the Judicial Council exists to do. It does not challenge doctrine and polity; it does not reinterpret doctrine and polity. Our Judicial Council holds the institution of The United Methodist Church accountable to the legislative decisions of the General Conference. So, there is really no surprise, though different perspectives were hoping for different outcomes.

Our denomination continues to navigate through a minefield of differing opinions, beliefs, interpretations, and theological worldviews. During certain times in our history, this grace-space for the broadest spectrum of Christian interpretation has been our strength. Not so much in recent years. Living in the liminal spaces of uncertainty and disagreement is stressful, and the current rulings move us no closer to resolution. Our Commission on A Way Forward is doing the interpretive and generative work. We will see what they offer very soon.

And where does this leave us? It leaves us in the same flawed and imperfect world in which humankind dwelt since Eden. It leaves us “working out our own salvation with fear and trembling” in the grand tradition of our Philippian forebears. It leaves us as beloved children of God, living together in grace and compassion, seeking to be faithful to love God and one another. Nothing has really changed. We are the same church today that we were yesterday – but by God’s grace we are becoming the people of faith our world most desperately needs. It is my deepest hope and desire that we can unite in our faith in Christ and our love for God’s church that we might witness to healing love and restorative justice. Our journey toward full inclusion is fraught with perils, pressures and problems, but our God is greater!

This is a time to pray for Karen Oliveto, the Mountain Sky Conference, and our whole United Methodist denomination. Now is a time for intercessory prayer. Now is a time for adoration and praise. Now is a time for confession and petition. Now is a time for us to find our center in our faith as we pray, together, “not our will, but thine be done.”

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Ephesians 2:14, NRSV)

Too often, United Methodists define themselves by what they are against – we stand against war, against bullying, against racial and economic injustice, against police brutality, against terrorism. The focus on what we are against sometimes causes us to lose sight of what we are for – United Methodists are for peace, for justice, for diversity and equality. We are for reconciliation and restoration, for harmony and unity. Now is a crucial time for United Methodists to communicate what we are for, as we witness the growing tensions and political maneuvering concerning North Korea.

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

The lines above are the verses to Isaac Watts’ When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, written in 1707. He was 33 – the same age many scholars set as Jesus’ age at his crucifixion. These lines are so important for a Christian culture that races through Holy Week to get to the glory of Easter. The glory of Easter IS the glory of Easter because of the amazing redemptive gift of God in the Son’s sacrifice. Certainly, it is right and good to celebrate the victory of Jesus. But Watts provides a vitally important and gracefully exacting aspect through which we should receive this gift. His words highlight humility, vulnerability, unworthiness, ignorance, and appreciation – qualities of character we all too often see as weak, undesirable or pathetic.

Yet, Jesus gave all for us, regardless. We so often remain ignorant of our responsibility to be kind, generous, forgiving and loving. We lack appreciation for the many blessings that we receive. We take for granted and feel entitled to everything good we receive; and we feel so ill-treated if and when hardship arrives. We think much more of ourselves than we do of others, and we work so hard to maintain our illusions of control and mastery. And still, Jesus goes to the cross for us.

As you awaken to the good news (gospel) and glad tidings of the empty tomb; as you set aside your rational arguments and disbelief; as you encounter in your own special way the resurrected Lord, remember. Remember a Savior who gave all. Remember a God who never gives up. Remember a grace that defeats sin and separation. Remember to be a little more like Jesus with every person you encounter. Remember – God is love.

Grace and Peace,
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung

 

For many Christians, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter is one of joy and celebration. From the shouting of “Hosanna” and the waving of palm branches to heralding Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem to the amazing news of resurrection on Easter morning, there is much that is exciting and wonderful. But I always wonder what the week between was really like for Jesus. Each of the gospels provides a different view of the week, but in common they share a time of mounting anxiety, conflict and uncertainty. There is evidence that the pressure took quite a toll on Jesus, making him act out in unique and powerful ways. Cursing the fig tree, overturning the merchants and money-changers' tables, being petulant with his followers – we see a different side of Jesus from what we are used to.

But reflect with me for a moment what might have been going through the mind of Jesus in his final days. First, there is truly no clear evidence that after all their time together, the disciples truly understood what Jesus was all about. In fact, the evidence points just the opposite way. They bicker about who may sit at his right and left hand; they pout; they are confused; they deny knowing him – nothing to give Jesus confidence that they know what they are doing.

With the exception of John’s gospel, there is little evidence that Jesus clearly understands what is to come. He says the right words, but there are clearly doubts. He teaches the disciples, but he acts in ways that belie his confidence. The very human side of Jesus sees clearly what is coming, and he is unsure that he can go through with it.

How many of us, facing conflict and confrontation, question whether it is worth it or not? How many of us willingly give ourselves over to pain, suffering, abuse, violence, let alone death by something so monstrous as crucifixion? What would we do in similar situations? What do we do in much less demanding circumstances?

Courage is not defined simply in what we do, but in what we are willing to do. True courage is what impels us to stand up to the very things that we most hate and fear. We sometimes overlook the incredible courage of Jesus during this final week. And we sometimes forget the incredible love Jesus showed in caring for and serving – not his ‘disciples’, but his friends – during his final hours.

In a few days, we will celebrate once again the incredible miracle of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. We will reflect again on what this means to us as the people of God, the followers of Jesus, and the Spirit-empowered Body of Christ. But I invite us this week to give as much thought to the very human Jesus who faced such terrible challenges before we jump to the glorious divine conqueror Christ. For it is Jesus the man who gave all that we might receive the benefit and blessing of the Messiah.

Thanks be to God. Alleluia!  Amen.

Grace and Peace,
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung

“Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing… Be at peace among yourselves… See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” I Thessalonians 5:11, 13b, 15-18

I had a wonderful time visiting all five of our districts for my Bishop’s Day Apart with Clergy, followed by a very special time at the Bishop’s Convocation with Laity. I cherish opportunities that I have to teach my brothers and sisters, as teaching is both a gift and a passion. This year, First Thessalonians chapter 5 has been much in my thoughts and in my heart, and it was this passage of scripture that framed my teaching.

It speaks to us who are fortunate to be leaders in the Church of God’s will for us as the people of God. In Paul’s vision for the Church, there is simply no place for “us and them” thinking. We are in this together. There is no possibility of split or division for we are all brothers and sisters in Christ – we are family, and you can’t choose your family. It is yours whether you like it or not. Siblings may bicker; siblings may fight; siblings may see things completely differently; but at the end of the day, family is still family.

This is where we are as a covenant community in Wisconsin. First, as the clergy covenant community, we are all part of a congregation defined by our ordination, commissioning, or license. I joked in my teaching that we are stuck with each other – you are stuck with me as your bishop, and I am stuck with all of you – like it or not. But I choose to like it. You are my community. You are my people. I am your bishop – bishop to all of you. Even when we have problems, and there are disagreements and conflict, I look forward to being with you so that we can all work together toward a solution. I laugh with you; I mourn with you; but in every way, I wish the very best for you.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:1-4)

Most Americans are not too good at “doing without.” We like our things, and our privileges, and our opportunities – so much so that we often take them for granted. Words like “discipline” and “sacrifice” and “deprivation” and “surrender” are viewed negatively. We like being comfortable and pampered and secure. The Lenten season for Christians often inspires people to give something up – we give up ice cream or chocolate or dessert for Lent. But while we deprive ourselves of an indulgence, we truly don’t make much of a sacrifice. We still take very good care of ourselves!

We stop short of depriving ourselves to the point where it hurts. We give up a little bit. We make a small sacrifice. Not too much changes in our lives during Lent. But I want to issue a challenge. I want us to give up something hard, something difficult. What I invite everyone to give up for Lent is ego.

Now, there is nothing wrong with a healthy ego, but our egos can cause problems when they become over-inflated. An over-inflated ego demands its own way. It makes us feel superior to other people. It makes us think we deserve anything and everything we want. It makes us “holier-than-thou,” and causes us to be judgmental. When our ego makes us the center of our universe, we displace God. It is impossible to be both Christ-centered and self-centered at the same time.

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we shall see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”  (I Corinthians 13:12)

You are cordially invited to join me on a breathtaking adventure. It will be to a place that we have never been before. I cannot guarantee safety or comfort. In fact, I am absolutely sure that some will not enjoy this adventure at all. It demands risk. It demands courage. It demands humility and surrender. I am inviting you to join me in the present moment – right here, right now, in the world that IS, rather than in the world as we think it is or should be.

What is the difference between the world that IS, and all the worlds that we make up in our minds and hearts? Well, this world is neither good nor bad, and people are not good or evil. What is, simply IS – just as God created it. We strip away our filters and lenses, and look at the world through new eyes, eyes unclouded by prejudice or predispositions, eyes open to new possibilities and to the very mind of Christ.

The false world, the world of our own creation, is a world of fear and anxiety and phony certainty pretending to be faith. The false view of our world looks for what is wrong, what is dirty, what is foul, what is corrupt. This false view is not from God. It is what we see in the mirror, dimly. It is a denial of all things Godly. It is our giving more power to the darkness than we give to the light. It happens when people think that the devil is more powerful than God.

We are living in a time when people are not very kind to others. There is despair and anger and hopelessness. This comes when we look through old, tired eyes. But we, people of faith in Jesus Christ, do not – cannot – look through old, tired eyes any longer. We walk by faith, not by sight. We know that there is a truth greater than what we perceive through our old eyes.

Where others see oppression, let us see the possibility of freedom. Where others see destruction, let us see the truth of renewal and resurrection. Where others see corruption and greed, let us see the fertile soil for redemption and justice. There is nothing wrong in the world that cannot be fixed, for nothing is greater than the power of God’s transforming Holy Spirit.

"If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…" (Philippians 2:1-5a)

All of life is about drawing circles – who is inside and who is outside? We draw circles around our children and spouses and brothers and sisters, and we enjoy the safety and security of family circles. We expand circles to include friends and neighbors. We move from circle to circle, from home to school to friends to church. As we grow and mature, we continually include new people into our circles of family, friends, work and play. We often include those in our circles who are most like we are; and we exclude those who are different. Our Judeo-Christian scriptures witness a history of circle-drawing – who are the Chosen and who are the Lost; who are the Jews and who are the Gentiles; who are the believers and who are the non-believers?

In our Church today, we still spend much of our time drawing circles and from those circles we put up walls and we erect barriers. Even though our Lord and Savior came to tear down the dividing walls of hostility, and to offer salvation to all people, we in the Church struggle to include.

In our country today, we talk about building a wall to keep out “undocumented aliens”. We are drawing lines and building walls to say that some belong and others do not. Is this heavenly thinking?  Do we believe that we are following a Savior and worshiping a God of barriers and fences? Will building a wall keep us safe, make us secure, or is it merely a symbol that we are ruled by fear more than faith? I do not agree with our President’s Executive Order to restrict and deny access to our country. I feel it is motivated more by fear than faith, and by anxiety rather than hope. I pray that our President can lead us to recover the dream of the United States as a place of opportunity and security for everyone. I hope and pray we can cast a beautiful vision of a Promised Land – truly with liberty and justice for all.

In November, our Board of Ordained Ministry released a statement about the criteria by which they will judge candidate’s fitness for ministry. Our Wisconsin Association of Confessing United Methodists responded, and in their response, they called for me to issue a statement and to take action to replace Board of Ordained Ministry members who are not in “compliance” with our Book of Discipline. After much prayerful discernment, I feel it is much too soon to take such action and that it may be perceived as “taking sides.” Instead I am looking to scripture for guidance. Matthew’s gospel gives us good instruction to first seek reconciliation, before seeking judgment and condemnation. In both chapters five and eighteen of Matthew’s text, Jesus gives instruction that we should first talk TO one another, rather than ABOUT one another.

To be faithful in this way, on January 18, I have invited leadership from the Executive Committees of our Board of Ordained Ministry and the Wisconsin Association of Confessing United Methodists to meet with me. I want to offer a time of deep listening. As a next step, I will offer an opportunity to meet with a professional mediator (at a time and date to be set prior to Annual Conference). The outcome of these gatherings is not necessarily a mutual agreement, but a forum in which not only may I hear from both sides, but that they may hear from each other, and deepen their understanding of the tensions in our community in Christ. I am hoping to open a “grace margin,” where we may relate to one another beyond our diverse issues and positions. My entire focus this year is answering this question: “How am I loving God more?” As people of faith, love of God is our constant goal and challenge, and we show this love in how we treat one another.

At the heart of the gospel is a passion and concern for the weak, the powerless, the poor. In a very real sense, the weak are the heart of gospel, the center of the world.
 

“The Lord God’s spirit is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, To proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and a day of vindication for our God, to comfort all who mourn….”
(Isaiah 61:1-2)

Our mission is to spread the gospel of freedom to those who most need comfort and hope. This liberation mission is clear to me as the mission of the Church. Were we to answer this call, and live to lift the burden and oppression of the weak, the year of Lord’s favor would start from there.

As we remember the Scripture’s clear focus on liberation of the poor and oppressed from injustice, we are reminded of the vision and gift of jubilee – equity and justice for all. The essence and nature of Torah and prophetic announcement is caregiving, and comfort for the weak and brokenhearted, even to their freedom. If we don’t contribute to this kind of release and freedom, we act against God’s beautiful will and redeeming plan.

Some theologians have reflected that God prefers the weak and poor to the scriptural traditions. This thought is reflected consistently through the teachings of the prophets, of Jesus, and of Paul. I believe it is true that the biblical imperative is to protect and defend the weak and poor in all the places, and at all times. I believe the center of the Church is intended to be the weak and poor. Those most oppressed and defenseless need to be central to our mission; and we need to focus our prayers and attention to this crucial teaching of the Christian scriptures.

“In the beginning was darkness, mystery, and you.
By your Word, you shattered the darkness with light.
You set in the sky radiant beams of sunlight and punctured the night sky with sparkling jewels.
You forever changed our darkness.
Though there are shadows and worries,
You have placed your Word in us to be a lamp for our feet.
You have given your Spirit like a bright guiding star.
You fill us with your Love as glorious as the sun.
You place your Truth like a crescent moon.
Every darkness is overcome with Light.
And every Light contains shafts of your Eternal Light.”
(Eucharist Prayer by Larry Peacock)

May you and your family have a bright and blessed New Year. 

Grace and Peace,
Im and Hee-Soo Jung