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.

Another Christmas will come and go. For some it will be a festive time when families and friends reunite and celebrate and rejoice. For some, it is a poignant time where through distance or death loved ones can no longer meet. For a few, it is a desolate and despairing time that contrasts a joyful season with a less-than acceptable life situation. For some, it is primarily a religious celebration; while for others it is about reindeer and snowmen and sleigh rides and Santa – and for most of us it is a wild hodge-podge of all these things rolled together. A significant number of people look as forward to Christmas being over, as to Christmas coming. Indeed, our American culture in the United States allows Christmas to take over just about everything – starting around Halloween.

The concept of a quiet, contemplative Christmas where “Silent Night” is more than a nice idea appears impossible to many – even those who celebrate primarily because of the birth of the Christ child. There is simply too much going on.

For this reason, I offer a simple gift. I want to give you an hour. Sometime in the next few days leading to Christmas, you have my permission to withdraw, find a quiet space, take a hot mug of something soothing or tasty, and sit to ponder one question and one answer.

The question is: “Why?” Why Christmas? Why did God do it? Why does God continue to do it? We certainly don’t deserve it. We haven’t earned it. We break covenant as often as we keep covenant (and if we are honest, we probably break it more often than not…). We are not too kind to one another most of the time; at best, we ignore most of the people we don’t know. We don’t do a very good job being patient and tolerant. Our generosity is too often the exception rather than the rule. We are not always forgiving of those who irritate or annoy us. Why did God grant us this amazing gift of salvation?

“In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.”

Christina Rosetti (Words), Gustav Holst (Music)

A seminary professor once taught, “The Christian year is twelve months long, but the year with Christ is only eleven months long.”  What he meant is that this season of Advent is a time before – before Jesus’ birth, before the coming of Messiah, before salvation. In our current world, humanity tends to race toward the finish, jump to the end, and cut out the unpleasant part to get to the good stuff. Advent has become such a time in the Church. Rather than explore the world in the absence of a Savior, we fill Advent with Christmas. We know how the story turns out, so we bring the angels and the shepherds and the magi – and even the baby in the manger – to the season of Advent. Many churches sing Christmas carols that celebrate the birth and proclaim the joy well in advance of the event. No longer do we wander the weeks of Advent in hopeful hopelessness and deep darkness; we fill Advent with Christmas.

But when we fill Advent with Christmas, we lose something precious – we lose the miracle. Advent is not so much a looking toward the birth of Christ, but a time of looking around to fully appreciate why we so desperately need a Savior. Look around. Look at a world where there is so much fear. Look at a world of gross injustice. Look at a planet being ravaged and destroyed. Look at the economic injustice that leads to abject poverty. Look at the hopelessness and despair that leads to terrorism and escalating acts of violence. Look at a world where the rhetoric of hate and hostility makes the threat of war a daily concern. Live with this world. Feel its pain and need. Don’t dismiss it. Don’t ignore it. Don’t despise it. And don’t give up.

The invitation that closes the Book of Revelation – Come, Lord Jesus! (22:20b) – is an invitation to both the first and second Advent. We don’t know the time or place of the second Advent, but again, we launch out into the Christian year with remembrance of the first Advent. So, as we embark on yet another Advent journey, I wish to issue a word of caution: be careful what you pray for; you just may get it!

Too often we allow Advent to be a safe, comfortable, passive time of waiting for the beautiful, gentle, and mild baby Jesus. Our hearts warm to the retelling of the Nativity, with shepherds and kings, donkeys and lambs, angels, and Mary, and Joseph, and the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes. What a lovely, simple, pleasant picture.

But I want to invite you to take some time for serious contemplation. Just what are we waiting for? What are we asking when we say, “Come, Lord Jesus”?  Some deep meditation may reveal that we are asking for much more than we think we are. We are not simply asking to see a baby in a manger; we are asking for a Messiah and Lord who will change us at the very core of our being. When we say “Come, Lord Jesus,” we are also saying:

  • Come, Lord Compassion – caring for others is no longer optional. When Jesus comes, we are all brothers and sisters. What we do to “the least” we do to Jesus. Caring for others – celebrating their victories and sharing in their sorrows – becomes for us a way of life. We become agents of God’s compassion in the world.
  • Come, Lord Mercy – no longer do we seek vengeance or wish for others that they receive punishment for wrong. When Jesus comes, we no longer seek harm or retribution – we wish the best for all. We extend God’s grace and forgiveness to all.
  • Come, Lord Justice – true justice is much more than mere punishment; it is a commitment to fairness, equity, sharing, and support. Jesus brings with him the essence and Spirit of the Jubilee – a time where everyone is free and fairly treated, where distinctions of rich and poor, have and have-not, are erased.
  • Come, Lord Healing – in Christ, we seek true unity of Spirit and witness. We are made one body, knit together in love, faith, hope, Baptism, proclamation, and redemption. Judgment falls away as we forgive and forget what divides and destroys in favor of the things God calls us to care about. We are healed as we let go of hates and hostilities, and commit to the celebration of the glory of God’s creation.
  • Come, Lord Transformation – we are made new creatures in Christ Jesus. No longer do we suffer insult and injury, low self-esteem or crippling fear. It becomes crystal clear when Jesus is born in the manger of our hearts – we are known by all for the fruit of God’s Holy Spirit that manifests in what we say and do. We become known for our love, our joy, our peace, and our patience. When people think of us, they think how kind, generous, gentle, faithful, and self-controlled we are. People know that we are safe, in that we speak the truth in love, and we embody God’s love and grace.

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever.

1 Chronicles 16.34:

Thanksgiving – the annual November celebration – is not a part of my Korean culture, and I do not know the full historic and political meaning. I do know that some of our Native American sisters and brothers have deep feelings about its implications, but I believe there is grace in what it can mean – a day and time dedicated to giving thanks to God for the multitude blessings in this life.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the phrase “into each life some rain must fall,” and it would be foolish to deny this is true, but we should never allow our focus to remain on the trials and troubles life can bring. Certainly, there is pain and loss, tragedy and suffering, and times of darkness and despair, but these do not define life. For the vast majority of the people on this planet, living day to day can be an uphill battle, but in my many travels, I am always deeply impressed that so many who have so little contain much joy. Thanksgiving, gratitude, and appreciation abound. Many who, by United States standards, are among the poorest of the poor find reason to dance and laugh and sing. How can this be?

I believe, quite simply, that we are created in the image of God, and that our God is a God of joy, celebration, jubilation, fullness, and abundance. Perhaps not always in material things – I have never subscribed to a “prosperity gospel” – but in the deepest, spiritual, most meaningful things. We are blessed when we have love of family and friends, when we live in community, and when we care for others as they care for us. We are blessed in body, mind, and spirit, which makes life an adventure, a mystery, and journey of discovery. We are wonderfully made for laughter, for pleasure, for contentment, and for joy. It is part of our human nature to desire good for others, to make sacrifices, to care and to give. Generosity is essential to our spirit, a fruit alongside gentleness, kindness, love and joy. Our hearts soar at the sight of a sunset, a rainbow, a star-rich sky. We resonate at the deepest level with the noble, the beautiful, the right, and the good. Oh, my friends, we have so very much to be grateful for!

My heart has been heavily burdened this week since the news of the shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The burden increased as responses shifted from concern for the people to politics and gun laws and domestic abuse statistics and the state of mental health reform in the United States. Certainly, all of these discussions are important, but they miss the point and too quickly shift our attention from the horror and pain of the act itself. For me, my heart breaks for the loss of innocent life, the desecration of a sacred space, and the brokenness of a world where violence is quickly becoming the default solution to all our disillusions and discontents. We need a Savior.

So, I offer a prayer, and I implore all my sisters and brothers to join me in prayer:

Healing Light, Healing Lord,

Be with us. Be with the victims of the shooting in your House in Sutherland Springs. Receive those who died into your glory and grant them an everlasting peace. Be with those who were injured and grant them a peace that was taken from them. For those present who survived, may you restore to them a sense of safety and security that they may never otherwise feel. For the family, friends, neighbors, and loved ones of First Baptist Church, hold them in your loving arms and remind them that violence and destruction never has the final word. For the whole family of God, encourage us and raise us above fear, anxiety, outrage, and a desire for vengeance. Help us know that violence is never the way to peace; and that weapons aimed at humans never build up, but always destroy.

Gracious Lord, in a world where there is so much despair, let us never grow weary as we strive for peace. Forgive us for the many ways we fail to be kind, caring, gentle and merciful. And help us to forgive those for whom life becomes so terrible that they see no other way forward but to destroy their brothers and sisters.

In our highly individualized, personal and self-sufficient culture, we sometimes need powerful and impressive reminders that we are stronger together than we are apart. United Methodists proudly proclaim that we are a “connectional Church,” but often this is proclaimed at an abstract and conceptual level. While we may say we are stronger together, we often behave as if we think we need no one beyond ourselves.

But when we honestly face the immensity of the needs in our world – needs for food, shelter, education, safety and security, mercy, healing, and justice – it becomes quickly clear that individually we can accomplish very little. The recent rash of natural disasters reveals just how vulnerable and fragile we are. Facing floods, fire, earthquakes, and hurricanes cannot be addressed adequately by individuals, or even individual congregations. This is the brilliance and benefit of our connectional Church.

In this season preparing our hearts and minds for Thanksgiving, let us celebrate our strength in unity together through our United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). Of all our causes to celebrate, UMCOR must rank toward the top. Through unity, solidarity, sacrifice and commitment, each and every United Methodist enters into the divine synergy God produces in our Church – together we truly are greater than the sum of our parts.

I want to encourage you to go spend some time on the UMCOR website at www.UMCOR.org. I guarantee that your heart will be “strangely warmed” by the stories of grace, compassion and service.

We are in Puerto Rico, partnering short- and long-term strategy for response and recovery. There will be a need for volunteers in Puerto Rico for quite some time, and UMCOR ensures that we will be with them for the long haul.

We are present in Myanmar and Bangladesh, engaged in the migrant refugee crisis with Rohingya Muslims. As more and more minority abuses increase, UMCOR responds to provide comfort, supplies and support.

Even when I cry out, “Violence!” I am not answered; I call aloud, but there is no justice. (Job 19:7)

Again, our country is shocked into silence by wanton, senseless violence. The shootings in Las Vegas are simply the most recent in a long line of massacres and bloodbaths committed by sick and deeply disturbed individuals. Horror mixes with heartbreak. What in the world is happening? We cannot fully fathom the depths of despair that result in such hopeless acts of domestic terrorism. Each and every time we ask, “How could such a thing happen?”

Our inability to understand such levels of brokenness say much about our ability to repress, deflect and deny. Throughout our Hebrew and Christian scriptures; prophets, poets, scribes, priests, and apostles addressed the same questions and concerns about violence and inhumane acts. It is in the fallen and selfish nature of human beings to lash out violently in the face of hopelessness and despair. When there is no hope, no faith, human beings take matters into their own hands. Violence is the lowest form of response to a world gone wrong. As one person hurts, so they wish to inflict hurt on others.

In Genesis 6:11, the author writes, “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” Perhaps we should reflect on whether these words might apply today? Our American culture glorifies and adores violence. Television shows, such as “Supernatural” and “The Blacklist,” depict weekly images of torture and viciousness. Movies, such as the new remake of “Death Wish,” make heroes of violent vigilantes. Guns are objects of worship; water and fire are made into weapons. We take it all in stride, never batting an eye. An epic tragedy the scope of the Las Vegas shootings quickly becomes a subject for debate by gun enthusiasts who claim that “anything can be turned into a weapon by someone bent on harming another.” One National Rifle Association spokesperson made the claim that a rifle is no more dangerous than a hammer or a kitchen knife, completely ignoring the damage a hammer might do from over 400 yards away. It is an insult to intelligent people everywhere to compare an automatic weapon that kills and injures hundreds in a matter of seconds from a distance greater than four football fields to a hammer or a kitchen knife, but this simply distracts from the horrible tragedy of victims and gunman.

From Bishop Hee-Soo Jung, Ph.D., The United Methodist Church

Mr. President, I respectfully write to you with four appeals.

First, I want to appeal to you for exemplary leadership in the case of North Korea. In a volatile and dangerous situation, a calm, cool, well-reasoned response is necessary. Our American media gives a limited, and somewhat biased view of what is happening on the Korean peninsula. Certainly there is evidence of rash and short-sighted decisions; but such evidence demands a more mature and measured response from global super-powers. North Korea needs to be taken seriously, and offered an opportunity to relate on the global stage. Name-calling and angry threats cannot make this situation better. But diplomacy that opens the door to healing and reunification is vitally important. The Korean War is yet to end, and the armistice in place is no substitute for a peace treaty. Further violence and damage is unneeded and unnecessary. Continued diplomatic conversations – such as those with South Korea and Japan – must include leadership from the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). At the very least, the United States must rise above the caustic rhetoric to offer a better way. We must offer a witness of peace, not violence. Jesus Christ reminds us, “blessed are the peacemakers.” (Matthew 5:9a)

Second, I appeal for a commitment to lead the globe, and not just our own country. Economic justice, access to education, open source technology, and freedom of movement provide our entire world with hope for the future. By keeping open borders, we allow those most likely to become enemies to become friends and allies. Young people of all races, creeds, countries, and ethnicities contribute to global peace and security as they obtain greater promise of economic justice and equal opportunity. Our DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) policies are a bright and shining hope for our whole planet. The more we support the youth of the world today, the more we lay a foundation for peace and security for our future. We have more than enough to share. We should be the country of open hearts, open minds, and open doors – a visionary commitment of The United Methodist Church. Open hands, as well, are a gesture of peace and hope for the future. This is what makes America truly great. Again, Jesus admonishes, “For if you only love those who love you, what reward have you?” Matthew 5:46a)

Leaders in the Church are often asked to speak about sin and evil. For a wide variety of reasons, people want bishops to declare this act or that behavior as sinful. This is always challenging and charged with great emotion. The condition of sin and the commitment of individual sins are not the same thing. To commit a sin is not equivalent to being sinful. Jesus said, “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (Matthew 12:32)  For United Methodists, it is important to reflect on what might constitute the unforgiveable sin?

The most powerful evidence of the Holy Spirit in our United Methodist heritage is the defining and abiding commitment to evangelism, missions, and social justice. These three core principle commitments make us who we are, and we believe they are the God-given, Holy Spirit-driven mandate that defines our mission and purpose. We make disciples – equipping people to share the Christian faith, to give generously and sacrificially, and to stand with the poor, the marginalized, and the stranger – so that our world may more closely resemble the kingdom of heaven. We are a Micah 6:6-8, Matthew 25:31-46, Deuteronomy 10:19; Philippians 2:1-18 Church (look them up) that is blessed in so many ways to be a blessing to others.

I see a terrible sin being committed in our world today – the pending treatment of Dream Act (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) young people through legislative action. Why do I feel this is sin?  The original meaning of the word we translate as “sin” was “to miss the mark,” or to stray from the true way. The true way, as defined for Christian people, is to break down all dividing walls, and to understand that the vision of God is unity, reconciliation, healing, and wholeness. Jesus, and subsequently Paul, spoke against artificial divisions of “us” and “them,” those who belong and those who don’t. Both our Hebrew scriptures and our Christian testament envision a reality where economic, ethical, and restorative justice prevails. Those who have share with those who have not; and those with advantage empower those with less power.

“When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.”

Genesis 9:14-15

In June of 2008, many regions of Wisconsin were declared disaster areas due to flooding, but few of us can truly relate to what is happening in Houston, and other areas of Texas and Louisiana. It is a disaster of almost Biblical proportions. When we think of the flood of Noah, we often treat it as a myth or fairy tale – a big boat bobbing over waves, carrying clean, happy animals two-by-two. We seldom relate to the terror, anxiety, relentless buffeting, and exhaustion of people enduring a natural disaster. Yet, that is what is needed in this case.

Reminiscent of hurricane Katrina, hundreds of thousands of lives will never be the same. Oh, for many, property may be restored or rescued, and for the fortunate that escape death or injury, life may one day get back to “normal,” but these flood waters change everything at a fundamental and lasting level. Life will always be different. There will be a before; and there will be an after.

What will after look like? My prayer is that after will be the time when those most affected will discover how much they are loved – how much people care about them. I pray that they will be surrounded by circles of generosity and grace, from family to friends to neighbors to communities to churches to systems to faceless millions who give unselfishly to care for the devastated, the dislocated, and the dispossessed. I pray that we will rise in Christian witness to offer caring and support and healing to those broken and battered. I pray that in the face of natural disaster, United Methodists all around the world (and especially in Wisconsin) will rally to be the body of Christ to those suffering and in desperate need.

Remember, when one suffers, we all suffer. But there will come a time to rejoice! Brothers and sisters, please let us join together to give as much as we can to extend grace and healing to those in need. Be in prayer with me – pray without ceasing for safety and comfort, for peace and strength. As the flood waters crest and recede, let our abundant generosity swell and spill over. These are our brothers and sisters, looking for a sign of covenant that God’s grace will shine again. May it shine in and through us! To offer your support, read message from UMCOR.

Grace and Peace,

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung

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.”