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.

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.