Have you ever waited for a miracle? We remember and recognize this situation every Advent time, but often it is not felt deeply and personally. It is a very different thing to pray, and petition, and hope, and dream of a miraculous act breaking into our day-to-day world. For my entire life, I have prayed that my nation, my country, my homeland, my heritage, and family could know peace and reconciliation – and become a peaceful and productive partner with our global community. I am overwhelmed as I see this miracle unfold, and am reminded again of the power of prayer to reconcile, to heal, to unite, and to usher in a new beginning for a new creation.

The historic summit in Singapore this week brought the Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Kim Jong Un, together with United States President Donald Trump to discuss the future, not only of these two countries, but of the whole Korean peninsula as well.

There are so many challenges to ministry today, and a lot of our energy is being spent on the current state of our denomination. This is a crossroads moment for us, as we prepare to address the report of The Commission on A Way Forward, the Council of Bishops recommendation, and the upcoming special session of the General Conference in February of 2019. These are all very important, but they inspire me to a deeper reflection on the future of our Church: how will we be faithful to our call and to our mission? God provides us with so many opportunities – will we rise to meet them or simply let them pass? The work of God and the will of God are too important to ignore. While we worry about tomorrow, we miss the vision for a rich and vital future. So, when Jesus says in Matthew 6:34, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today,” he is not saying we should not look to the future possibilities, but that we should not let our worries blind us. There are many things we cannot control, so to worry about them – and to use them as an excuse not to work for good – is an inexcusable waste of time.

Being a United Methodist bishop brings me many joys and great satisfaction. I am constantly engaged in conversations about vision for the future, unlimited possibilities, and discernment in God’s will for our Church. I serve with so many gifted men and women, in so many levels and capacities of the Church. Most days, I am proud, humbled and honored to be an Episcopal leader.

Then there are days when I feel burdened and sad. When we received the news that the two constitutional amendments concerning gender equality were defeated, I was deeply troubled. What did this mean? Were we saying women are not equal to men? Were we saying there should not be equal treatment and inclusion? Come on! This is not true of the Church I serve! We are rich in our diversity, beginning with gender diversity. Women are created in God’s image. Women are led by God’s Holy Spirit. Women are gifted to lead. I am proud that The United Methodist Church has long championed the rightness of women in ordained ministry, and in every leadership function at every level of the Church. And I feel very confident that the failure of these constitutional amendments to pass has more to do with other factors than respect and acceptance of women as equal in every way to men.

"… Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible." - Matthew 19:26

"… for we walk by faith, not by sight." - 2 Corinthians 5:7

Even people of faith can sometimes throw up their hands in despair and say, “This is too much; this is too hard; it is impossible.” This is a simple reality of human weakness – we want to believe but sometimes we give in to our unbelief. Hallelujah that we have a Savior, Jesus Christ! What is not always possible for us, is always secure in God’s hand.

Today, I mean this about Korea. I hope you have heard the news! President Moon Jae-in of the Republic of Korea (South) and Chairman Kim Jong-un of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North) crossed the military demarcation line (MDL) to meet at the Panmunjom Peace House on April 27. There they crafted the “Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification of the Korean Peninsula.” This, brothers and sisters, is an answer to millions of prayers across decades. This historic many have come to say “is too much; is too hard; is impossible!” But celebrate together a miracle in our day – what may seem impossible to mortals is never impossible to God. We must hold on in faith; we must believe.

I want to share my thoughts and feelings about the recent Council of Bishops meeting that ended May 4 in Chicago. It was a rich time, a challenging time, a prayerful time, a frustrating time, a joyful time, and a time of deep reflection and discernment. In essence, it was our Church as it is today, in this time and place. I don’t see it as a good place or a bad place, a right place or a wrong place. No, we are where we are; and together we work out our own salvation – and future – with deep respect and some trembling. Our Church is not of one mind or one heart; but we are guided by the same Spirit; and through the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit, I believe we can have a strong, lasting future of transformation and grace.

I encourage you to read the summary reports on the Bishop’s recommendations, and to continue to pray about them and the Church. Prayer is the one thing we all can do; and in prayer, we trust that God will enable us to make the very best decisions.

The Council of Bishops reflects the many perspectives on the authority of scripture, the theological foundations of faith, engagement with LGBTQ individuals and communities; but in the midst of the diverse worldviews, some strong commonalities emerged. As a Council, we decided to place our trust in God and God’s Church – represented in our General Conference – to do the work that is needed, and to decide our best path forward.

I am thinking that an amazing God deserves an amazing church. In these days following the Easter miracle, I am again impressed by the immensity of the love and grace of our God, so loving this world that Jesus was sent to atone for our sins, but more than that, to empower and engage us to be the body of Christ for the world! The resurrection was no ending, but a new beginning. Our God is an amazing God. Can we respond in any way that is less than to be an amazing church?

You probably know my vision and my passion. I wish to see our church reach any and all people who do not know our God and our Savior, Jesus the Christ. Be they poor or rich, weak or strong, whole or broken – I want all brothers and sisters to receive the gift of God’s abundant love and grace – and in every way, I want people to know this grace through the people called United Methodist in Wisconsin.

I see thousands of opportunities to create new ministries throughout our conference. New generations of people, new immigrants, disillusioned former believers and energized new seekers could benefit so much from the love and grace of God, and we have almost unlimited opportunities to be agents of such love and grace.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

John 14:27

The fruit of God’s Spirit that we most associate with Easter is usually joy, but this year I invite you to reflect on peace – the peace of Christ as a God-given gift for the foundation of our faith. Why peace? Because we live in such uncertain and anxious times. Wars, and threats of war, tear nations apart. Political parties attack each other and foster fear in their constituents. Violence in our society impels the fearful among us to take up weapons in self-defense. Economic woes and worries destroy lives, families, and communities. Disagreements and conflict threaten our churches at local, regional, denominational, and global levels. Many people live under the constant stress of anxiety and fear. This is not God’s will for God’s people.

The resurrection of Jesus the Christ is an eternal and infinite affirmation of the absolute power of God. Death is made meaningless. Eternal life is the new normal. Sin loses all power. God wins. There is no more uncertainty about the outcome. This is the essence, the cornerstone of our faith. There is no longer reason to fear. The evidence of Christ in our life is whether we are guided by faith or by fear. The message from God through the resurrection is simply this: be not afraid.

I want to walk as a child of the light;
I want to follow Jesus.
God set the stars to give light to the world;
The star of my life is Jesus.

Refrain

In him there is no darkness at all;
The night and the day are both alike.
The Lamb is the light of the city of God;
Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.

Kathleen Thomerson’s 1970 song of commitment, I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light, is so innocent and hopeful on the surface that it is easy to miss the gravity and importance of the sentiment. What does it truly mean to walk as a child of the light? What do we mean when we say we want to follow Jesus? Do we think it is easy, that we already are doing it? When we claim that Jesus is the “star of our life,” would anyone else describe us this way? I wonder.

While I walked the path of Jesus – from Bethlehem to the wilderness desert and through the sacred sites around and within Jerusalem – my Lenten journey was transformed. My imagination and thinking were challenged in creative ways through the place we call “Holy Land.” I reflected on John the Baptizer’s words from the opening verses of Mark’s gospel – “After me comes one who is mightier than I – I baptize with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” I believe myself baptized by this same Holy Spirit. But what does this really mean?

My brothers and sisters, I want to make sure you are aware of an event in our Wisconsin Conference that fills my heart with joy and my soul with hope. On Wednesday, March 21 at Central United Methodist Church in Milwaukee, starting at 6 p.m., I and leaders from the Niagara Foundation will be in dialogue about the ways Muslims and Christians can peacefully and faithfully engage in our modern world, so often torn apart by prejudice, hatred, and misunderstanding. I will be presenting a talk, Beyond the Walls and Divisions: Interfaith Dialogue Leading to New Possibilities, which I hope will explain my vision for interfaith, ecumenical engagement. Hilmi Okur from University of Chicago Divinity School will also share his expertise from the Muslim perspective.

My excitement about this opportunity is the building of bridges, and the opportunity to confront some serious misunderstanding and misinterpretation so prevalent in our Church and world today. Too often, different spiritualties are cast in opposition and conflict with each other. There is much biblical precedent cited for such animosity, but it is taken out of cultural, temporal, and social context. What we share in common is generally ignored in favor of our theological and foundational differences. What is bred is a hostility born of ignorance, intolerance, and fear. Interfaith dialogue is a crucial step in correcting age-old misconceptions.

In my Lenten reflection time, I note that we move from Black History Month in February to Women’s History Month in March. On one hand, there is much to celebrate in both recognitions, but on the other hand, why do we need to highlight “Black” and “Women” as special objects of attention? It would be so offensive to have “White Male History Month,” but an argument can be made that – still, to this day – every month is “White Male History Month.” In terms of attention, justice, awareness, equality, and fairness, it seems that the only way we can celebrate anyone other than white men is to designate a special “month.” This is sad, and this is wrong. Women, Chinese, African, Korean, Hispanic, Latino, European, Indonesian, Russian, Laotian, and a thousand other cultures, ethnicities, races, heritages, and histories should be celebrated each and every day of each and every year. We should celebrate brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, men and women as beloved children of God regardless of any human drawn boundary or limit.

At the same time, we should celebrate our diversity, but not just of culture, language, race, gender or skin color. Each of us is a snowflake – unique, wondrously made, one-of-a-kind. Each of us has a foundational personality through which we process knowledge, experience, information, talent, passion, interest, vocation, gifts, and sense of purpose. There should be a day to honor and celebrate every human being who walks upon this earth. If such attention were given, perhaps we would be a kinder, gentler, more compassionate, and merciful people. To look at each difference with gratitude and awe could change our whole way of thinking, acting, and being. Were we to see the gift of each child of God, perhaps we would stop looking for deficiencies, divisions, and reasons to judge and reject others.

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

He also told them a parable: “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” 

Luke 6:37-42 (NRSV)

Brothers and sisters, welcome to the desert wilderness. Our Lenten journey leading to Holy Week and Easter is much more than a mere remembrance of the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, where he fasted and was tempted by the devil. There is great theological and spiritual significance to these temptation stories, but Lent is a time for us to enter into empty spaces, where we can take a good, long look at ourselves, undistracted by creature comforts. Today, few Christians fast through Lent, and perhaps this is a shame for us, because we do not experience deep hunger, want, and need; and so from our comfortable position, we spend less time thinking deeply with God, and we spend more time thinking about – and judging – others.

He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore;

Micah 4:3

As Christians, we may differ in our understanding of God’s will, but there are some very clear messages from our scripture. War, violence, killing, injuring others, vigilantism, and revenge are aspects of our brokenness and separation from God. We are called to be peacemakers, loving mercy, showing compassion, standing for justice, and doing all in our power to spread God’s love. Few people debate these things.

Yet, on February 14 – Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day – seventeen students died at the hands of a troubled gunman. It deeply saddened me to see one of the earliest responses to this tragedy was not condolences or sympathy, but a strident defense of the right to own guns in the United States. The core of the defense was that the latest tragedy wasn’t about guns, but about the breakdown of our civil society and discipline for our children. Such equivocating breaks my heart.

“He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there”, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.’ Matthew 17:20

Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ taught us that small things can bring about incredible, miraculous change. From the smallest catalyst, a new reality may emerge. I ask you to pray and hope with me that the recent decision for North and South Korea to field a joint women’s ice hockey team, and march under a pro-unification flag at the Winter Olympics, will result in a fundamental change in the tensions between the two countries.

Psalm 104:33 – “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
   I will sing praise to my God while I have being.”

My brothers and sisters, thank you!  Let us celebrate and sing, rejoice and be glad. Together, we have done a wonderful thing!  Because of our commitment and generosity, lives have been saved, people have been given hope, and the loving grace and power of Jesus Christ have been shared around the world. God is doing amazing things through us, and we should be joyful. I want every pastor in our Conference to share the good news with the whole congregation: Wisconsin Conference paid its General Church apportionments in full, 100%, for 2017. In fact, we paid our commitment to Africa University at 105%!

Many in our Church live under a myth about apportionments. They feel these are administrative costs, or pay insurance, or overhead. And while a very small portion does go to these costs (less than 6%), the vast majority fund life-saving, faith-raising, hope-giving mission and ministry locally, denominationally, and globally.

In Wisconsin, we have camps and campus ministries and mission teams funded through our apportionments. We support health and welfare ministries, young clergy education and development, clergy and laity training, new congregational development, and a host of mercy and justice ministries. Our Boards of Ordained and Lay Ministries are funded. Local, jurisdictional, national and international missions, ministry, projects, and programs are supported.

Globally, we help The United Methodist Church be early on the spot in times of natural disasters and human suffering. This year, Wisconsin was present in Mexico, Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico, South Dakota, Haiti, Zimbabwe, and a host of other locations around the world through our connectional and second mile giving. We support Sager Brown in Louisiana and Midwest Distribution in Illinois, numerous local and national projects through Volunteers in Mission, and internationally through International Volunteers in Mission, and many ongoing projects through our denomination.

We are richly blessed in Wisconsin with the gift of diversity. We celebrate the diversity of faiths, cultures, races, lifestyles, and a rich tapestry of geographic diversity. Across our Conference, we find urban centers and rural towns offering God’s presence to people whose lives are enriched and challenged by the dynamics of the society.

We gathered in Milwaukee on January 14th for the 6th annual celebration of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. During this service, we examined today’s world, and witnessed our stand for justice, mercy and truth. This year we were blessed with Bishop Melvin Talbert’s prophetic witness. I was deeply inspired and moved by the stories he shared. In 1967, Bishop Talbert spent three days and nights in the same jail cell with Dr. King; and with nonviolent witness, he was impacted by Kings’ legacy until today. Now is the time to embrace the legacy of Dr. King.

At this point in time, there may be no more important task, no more critical need, than to address racism and violent discrimination in all its forms. Without denying all the progress that has been made in race relations in our recent history, it is imperative that we honestly and accurately identify the forms of bias, bigotry and prejudice that lead to hostility, violence, and institutionalized injustice.

Our culture and world needs to understand “Black Lives Matter;” and our actions speak much more loudly than our words. We must make our neighborhoods, communities, and cities safe for black men and women, young and old. We must meet this challenge on many fronts. In our churches, we must pray; and we must educate; and we must get involved. I want to challenge all of the predominantly white churches in our Wisconsin Conference to study together such books as Blindspot, Another Day in the Death of America, Fear of the Other, or Stamped from the Beginning – or any of dozens of the studies of racism and the current trends of unjust violence against minorities, especially blacks, in our country and world.