The hymn Stand By Me speaks to my heart at this time of conflict and uncertainty following our special session of General Conference. Storms of life are raging. The world is tossing us like a ship upon the sea. So we pray to the one who rules wind and water – stand by us. Hold us. Comfort us. Be gentle with us and help us be gentle with each other.

Old fisherman wisdom says when you are faced with a rapid current, slow down. Take careful steps. Set your foot down firmly, slowly, or you may be swept away. I invite us all to move slowly, to take careful steps, and to be very intentional. This is a critical time for healing and restoration. Our mission and ministry is important, but let us take time out to care for ourselves and others following our General Conference.

The hymn Stand By Me speaks to my heart at this time of conflict and uncertainty following our special session of General Conference. Storms of life are raging. The world is tossing us like a ship upon the sea. So we pray to the one who rules wind and water – stand by us. Hold us. Comfort us. Be gentle with us and help us be gentle with each other.

Old fisherman wisdom says when you are faced with a rapid current, slow down. Take careful steps. Set your foot down firmly, slowly, or you may be swept away. I invite us all to move slowly, to take careful steps, and to be very intentional. This is a critical time for healing and restoration. Our mission and ministry is important, but let us take time out to care for ourselves and others following our General Conference.

We will work hard to build our church up and to continue our critical mission work, but this does not mean “business as usual.” We want to be present to one another, to listen to one another, to minister to one another, and to heal tender, damaged or injured relationships. We will take time to be kind and merciful to one another.

What this means is that we will slow down some of our projects and efforts. Launch Out! is critical to the future of our Annual Conference, but to push it forward when people are hurting would not be wise. You don’t push out from shore in the middle of a terrible storm and choppy waters. You wait for the storms to die down before launching out into deep waters. We will slow down on the rollout of our Launch Out! campaign. Indeed, we are not stopping it, but we have other things we need to attend to first.

The leadership of the cabinet will be making time to talk with clergy and laity to hear where you are and what you are thinking and feeling following General Conference. We will be working together to make our Annual Conference session in June a time for restoration and vision, to build bridges and repair harm. We will use our gathering times to be present with each other, to better understand and appreciate where people are in their relationship to The United Methodist Church.

Being together is important. Listening is important. Working hard to understand each other is important. And we want to create the time and space to allow these things to happen. But this must not simply be passive time, but a time for active engagement and conversation. And it must be a time of prayer. I encourage us throughout our Lenten season and the weeks until Annual Conference to gather in prayer. Pray for one another. Pray together. Pray for the church. Pray for our future. Pray that God’s Holy Spirit will open us to the very will of God. And pray that we might be the church God most needs us to be. I rejoice to be your bishop. Thanks be to God.

Grace and Peace,

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung

My beautiful Wisconsin people, you are in my heart and in my prayers.  I am hearing you.  I am hearing your pain.  I am hearing your anger.  I am hearing your hurt and frustration.  I am hearing your despair, and it is heartbreaking.

We are so divided over our beliefs about human sexuality and these emotional issues sometimes make us act and behave in harmful and unkind ways.  We, intentionally and unintentionally, continue to do great harm to LGBTQI+ persons, and our attitudes and beliefs about the gay community cause great divisions within our fellowship.  What became crystal clear at this General Conference is how deeply injured we are, and how deeply we stand in need of God’s healing grace.

We are not in a healthy place, and there is no clear way to resolve our differences.  This cannot be settled by winners and losers.  In almost every vote of significance we were within 7% or 40 votes of each other.  We are a church of half and half – half thinking one way and half thinking the opposite.

My beautiful Wisconsin people, I am greeting you following General Conference.

What a difficult process we experienced trying to find our way forward as The United Methodist Church!  We knew this would not be easy, but it was as hard as anyone might have imagined.  We are a wounded church.  We are a divided church.  We are a church in pain, and we are doing harm to each other.  Very messy, and very hard.  We worked hard for four days – and I want you to know that your elected delegation represented you well.  Be proud of them and be thankful to them.  They worked hard – but there were many difficult situations, and it became clear just how deeply our divisions go within our church.  And I would say we are evenly divided.  Many of our votes were close; one even 50%-50%.  Strong, strong feelings on each side.  This was a short time to try to resolve long and big problems.  God was with us; the Holy Spirit was with us, but we are in a very troubled and divided time.  Take heart though – God is not finished with us yet!

It would be too easy to say we failed at General Conference.  That is one way to look at it, and many people will.  But perhaps God revealed to us that we are not yet ready to make these big decisions that will forever change our church.  Our more conservative members who hold to a very clear and simple reading of scripture felt challenged and misunderstood, yet a strong support for this position was evident.  The concerns of our Central Conferences were voiced and challenged, yet there was strength in this area as well.  Our LGBTQI+ brothers and sisters felt judged, disrespected, and attacked, yet parts of the community rallied around them with incredible love and compassion.  What became painfully clear is that we are a broken church, but with large segments of agreement within our disagreements.

Where we met an impasse is over the issue of who should stay and who should go, who will be The United Methodist Church and who should have to leave.  This is where we are stuck, and I believe our General Conference showed clearly we are not in the right place to make this our only decision.  With the exception of a small handful who only want to leave, the vast majority of people are still proud to be United Methodist and they are not ready to destroy the faithful and sacramental covenant that we share.  While we may disagree over issues of human sexuality, we are still proud and protective of being United Methodist, and we will not take action that will force anyone to give that up.

I cannot tell you I am happy with what happened at General Conference.  I cannot tell you I think we did a good job.  I cannot tell you that I think we engaged in abject humility and obedience to God’s Holy Spirit.  But what I can tell you is that people of faith – laity and clergy, male and female, old and young, local and global, straight and gay – did the best job they could to serve the church and the God they love.  It shows again why we still need a Savior, why we all stand in the need of prayer and God’s perfecting love and grace.  There is great work to do ahead of us.  I believe that we will move forward together in Wisconsin as well as any group of Christians within our connectional church.  I know this because I know you are a people of love, with a heart for ministry and a passion for mission.  I know we will work out our future together in faith because I know we are good, beautiful people of mercy, compassion and justice.  And I know we will create a wonderful future together because the God who has not given up on us will not allow us to give up on one another.  Thanks be to God. 

Here is my prayer for all of us:

Gracious God,
Forgive our inability to see new possibilities.
We seek to be faithful, and we seek to be a light in the world.
We are not perfect, and we are not able to fully be the people you need us to be.
But you continue to work in us, through us, for us, and between us.
Help us to serve you first.
Come Holy Spirit, transform us.
Come Holy Spirit, redeem us.
Come Holy Spirit, fill us.
Come Holy Spirit, forgive us.
Teach us to honor and glorify you in all that we do,
And heal our woundedness that we might be a strong and mighty witness to your love and grace in the world.
Amen.

A historic gathering will take place February 23-26 in St. Louis, Missouri as the specially convened session of General Conference takes place.  This meeting will shape and direct the future of The United Methodist Church.  It is a monumental moment in our long and varied history.  It is my fervent prayer and deepest hope that it will be a God moment.

What we will do in St. Louis is incredibly important.  It will say to the world who we are, what we value, how we understand the God of love, and why we believe the church is important.  It will determine how we will live together in covenant, and the foundation upon which our covenant is based.  It will impact how we treat each other, and what the core of our ministry is in our broken, contentious, and conflicted world.  This conference will determine whether we can continue to serve God as the body of Christ or if we will have to go our separate ways.  And while it will not settle our different understandings of the authority and interpretation of scripture, our theological debates, and our ideological disagreements, it will influence how we will be able to engage in these issues in the days to come.

As important as what we do, then, is how we do what we do.  The world is watching us.  How will Christians behave when they discuss, debate, dialogue, and disagree about the critical decisions that must be made?  How will disciples of Jesus the Christ speak to one another?  Will the Holy Spirit have anything to do with our deliberations?  If so, then the evidence will be a General Conference abounding in the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  These will be the determining proof of who is in charge of General Conference 2019.  “Winning” is not the point.  Honoring and glorifying God, modeling Christian grace and mercy, embracing a Pentecostal infusion of Holy Spirit – this will proclaim to the world our core beliefs and values.

February 23 has been designated a day of prayer and discernment for this special General Conference.  I want to invite all clergy and laity throughout our Annual Conference to hold this Saturday as a true Sabbath.  Set aside time, energy, and focus to pray simply, but powerfully, “not our will be done, O Lord, but in all things may your will be done!”

There is still so much critical ministry for us to do.  We still exist in a world of hurt and violence, untruth and hatred, brokenness and despair.  And we United Methodists have been blessed with the gospel, the good news that God is still in charge.  Our God is love.  Our God is grace.  Our God is compassion and mercy.  Our God loves the entire creation.  And God loves all of us so much that God’s Son came to redeem and reclaim us all.  Let us do nothing, through our human weakness or short-sightedness, to undermine the will and work of God.  Let us pray together to be faithful in all things.  I believe God has great plans for us that echoes the prophet’s promise, a future with hope.

Grace and Peace,

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

I Corinthians 12:12-26 (NRSV)

One of the greatest challenges to our United Methodist Church is currently under global consideration.  We will gather as a worldwide denomination in February in St. Louis to truly determine our collective future.  Our ability to fulfill our mission of disciple-making for the transformation of the world, and our witness to the world of the saving grace and loving compassion of God is at stake.

Spiritual leaders throughout our church are calling United Methodists everywhere to make a commitment to the unity of faith in Jesus Christ and the continued positive impact of our theological and missional work in the world.  To the consternation of many, our “unity” has become a topic of debate and division.  This indicates a deep misunderstanding of “unity” as used in our Christian scriptures.  The Greek word Ενότητα (enotįta) is more rich and complex than the English translation unity.  By applying simplistic modern definitions to the word unity, we can deny the scriptural intention, which has great power to help us through our current challenges.

Many opponents to the idea of unity in The United Methodist Church incorrectly say it implies full agreement, lack of disagreement, regimented acceptance of a narrow set of moral standards, or homogenized sameness for all believers and members.  Interestingly, this is almost the opposite of what Paul and Jesus taught in our New Testament.

While Paul calls those who claim Christ as Lord and Savior to be of one heart and mind, and to proclaim the faith with one accord, his intention is that Christ followers would choose to unite around those things most important, and to set aside those things over which they disagreed.  Repeatedly, Paul acknowledges that there will be disagreements.  It is not disagreement that is the problem, but how we address our disagreements that is most important.  No matter how vehemently we disagree, our baptism, our belief in the risen Christ, and our proclamation of the love and grace of God is more powerful.  We do not choose unity; we are already made one with Christ, one with each other, and one in service by God’s redeeming act through Christ.  We do not unite to honor God; we honor God by recognizing the unifying work of God in our lives through our faith.  Once again, we do not choose God; God chooses us!  What we choose is how we will live this unity together.

His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy steward; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

Matthew 25:21

I want to echo the gospel writers, my faithful sisters and brothers, “Well done, good and trustworthy stewards!” We have so much to celebrate as the Wisconsin Conference. I am inspired and excited by your faithfulness in moving together through a challenging and often difficult year financially. As the cabinet, Council on Finance and Administration, Personnel Committee, and the leadership of our boards and agencies pulled together to make significant financial decisions, we were able to make appropriate adjustments to both finish with our budget in the black AND to pay our general church apportionments 100%!

This was not easy, and at times felt almost impossible, but we walked by faith, rather than by sight, and pulled together in amazing ways to do excellent ministry with fewer resources.  One reason for this is that our leaders collaborated in significant ways.  Instead of protecting budgets and competing for resources, we worked together as one conference, helping all to do the best way possible.  In the biblical tradition of the church in Corinth, those in our conference with more resources shared abundantly with those who had less, and we were able to cover our missional needs.

And our local congregations stepped up as well, supporting our Mission churches and critical ministries not fully funded this past year.  There were painful cuts to staffing, and some of our important ministries were deferred, but the way we worked together to find creative solutions was miraculous.  We offer great thanks to our Wisconsin United Methodist Foundation for their guidance and support through this time.  Much appreciation goes to our Council on Finance and Administration for the new and improved accountability processes for our budgeting and spending.

To every church that paid their apportionments in full, thank you for your leadership and witness; and to those who faithfully paid as much as they could, we express appreciation as well.  If every church will work toward 100% payment, we will see amazing things happen in the Wisconsin Conference.

All of this excellent news lays a firm foundation upon which we build our Launch Out! campaign.  I want to share with you the excitement and passion people are beginning to express about our faith-raising campaign.  And I emphasize FAITH-raising, not just fund-raising.  People are not responding because of financial need but due to a transformative vision for vital, life-giving, life-saving, disciple-making ministry in Wisconsin’s future.  People are catching the vision and making substantial investments in the future ministry of our Conference.  While a few voices question the timing of this campaign – given short-term financial challenges and the uncertainty of the upcoming special session of General Conference – the vast majority want to stay focused on exciting ministry and the ways we can honor and glorify God through our stewardship and service.  Many say that regardless of what happens in February, the work of God must go on.

In times of anxiety and uncertainty, our faith is put to the test.  I am proud and excited to say that Wisconsin Conference is passing this test with flying colors.  We are preparing to Launch Out! in faith, to do God’s will, to share in God’s work, and to bring God’s realm to fruition in each and every one of our faith communities.  Blessings to you all.  Well done, good and faithful stewards!

Grace and Peace,

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:28

Have you ever wondered what the week after Jesus’ birth was like for Mary and Joseph and the new born babe? The shepherds were gone, Bethlehem had most likely cleared out of the visiting masses, and the wise men had not yet arrived. There was not yet a rumor of danger to the infant and no immediate reason to move. According to Luke’s gospel account of the birth, Mary treasured all the many wonders that occurred, keeping them safely in her heart. Was it dawning on Mary and Joseph the incredible responsibility they now assumed? Think. Would you like to be given the responsibility for the care, safety, education and direction of the one true Son of God?

Modern day Christian believers sometimes miss the fact that Jesus was a product of his society, his culture, and his upbringing. The young man Jesus became owed much to his heritage and upbringing (yes, of course, his nature had much to do with it as well). Few of Jesus’ teachings were new to Jesus. It was his method of teaching, his audience, and his radical inclusiveness that made his messages so powerful and unforgettable. But, Jesus was a very Jewish teacher who had obviously been brought up right.

Joseph passes quickly from the story, while Mary makes infrequent appearances. We have virtually no sense of the home life of the parents of the Messiah, but it is not a far stretch to believe that normal parental anxieties, worries, concerns, and considerations were all greatly amplified. What ran through Mary and Joseph’s mind when they needed to discipline Jesus? If Jesus was fully human and fully divine, then he was fully a normal boy growing up with all the challenges that brings.

It is a shame we don’t have the stories of Jesus growing up (apart from the one incident in the temple when Jesus was twelve years old). It could be a great comfort to have insight into all the things that contributed to Jesus becoming the man he did. Even the nature of God, if ignored or abused, could have been channeled in a variety of different ways. It would be nice to better understand the influence Mary and Joseph had on Jesus.

In big and small ways, we all influence and affect others. Every choice we make in our relationships has immense potential power – for good or for ill. We speak often of the impact faith in Jesus Christ makes on our lives, but even the best of us fall short of living up to the standards we set for our discipleship. We need help. We need God. We need each other.

“Am I my brother’s (sister’s) keeper?” is the rhetorical question asked in scripture (the answer is “yes,” if you are wondering) that applies to each and every one of us. But what if we extended this thought to “and who is my child?” and looked at every other person on earth as someone we have a responsibility to and for? What if we defined our God-given vocation as receiving each new person as a beloved child, born of God, and entrusted to our care. Wouldn’t this impact the ways we talk to and treat each other? If I look at those I meet as my charge, my responsibility, my offspring, and my family, I will engage with them in very different ways.

At the new year, it is quite normal to look ahead, to think about the days to come, and to long for a better tomorrow. Wanting a nicer, safer, kinder future is a noble wish, but God expects so much more from us. It is not enough to want, to wish, or even to pray. We must act, and we must act together. We must treat one another as we would treat the blessed Christ child. And to the extent we are successful, God’s will is done, and the wondrous work of transforming the world occurs. How glorious it is when we face our future together! May you experience rich blessings in the New Year!

Grace and Peace,

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung

"When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh."

Matthew 2:10-11

Epiphany is a word that has lost much meaning in the church, though we do retain it in remembrance the first Sunday after Christmas as a commemoration of the visit of the magi to the infant King. But in its broadest and purest sense, an epiphany is a magnificent manifestation of the divine. The early church referred to the revelation of Jesus to the magi – Gentile astrologers and wise scholars, not of the Jewish faith – as both an epiphany and a theophany (appearance of God to humans). Interestingly, Jesus’ appearance before the shepherds was not considered epiphany, because in this context, he was the expected Messiah. This is another missing element of epiphany – unexpected as well as magnificent.

But expected or unexpected, do we in our day and age really anticipate encounters with the divine? Haven’t we relegated epiphany to a quaint scene in our Christmas pageants (where, for some inexplicable reason we have the shepherds and the wise men arrive simultaneously, implying a confusing hybrid Matthew/Luke mash-up of holiday cheer!) where the gifts are given, and the wise men step back in ensemble adoration of baby Jesus with all the other players?

How far are we willing to travel to see Jesus? Some scholars believe that the magi travelled not just weeks, not just months, but years to find the Christ child. And here is the amazing thing: Jesus was not their Messiah, not their Savior, not their King – at least not in their belief system. He was to be the King of the Jews. Gentiles were on their own. But as Savior, he came to rescue the entire created order of God!

In this remarkable case, certain men of magic, astrology, prediction, and prognostication saw signs and portents that the world was soon to change, completely and irrevocably. King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Prince of Peace, Savior of all humankind – something that had never happened before was happening now, in the immediate and present world. Those who saw Jesus saw God – epiphany, theophany, Emmanuel.

I know it is challenging but think if you had never heard this story before. God, on earth. The divine, in human form. Wise men from the east left whatever home, family, security, and comfort they knew to seek the Messiah of a foreign faith. It makes no sense. But, ultimately, it made all the sense in the world.

When you next attend church, prepare to have an epiphany. Prepare your heart, mind, and spirit to meet the new born king; to encounter the divine. Ready yourself to see God – God in the sanctuary, God in the prayers, God in the music, God in the scripture, God in your sisters and brothers. Prepare to be surprised; ready yourself for the unexpected; seek and you shall find! God is with us! God’s Son is born anew, for us and for all, Savior of the world. Receive this sacred gift with joy.

Then, take what you receive with you and share it with everyone you meet. Multiply your blessing by giving it away. Surprise others with the love, joy, grace, and hope of Christ. Don’t just have an epiphany but be the epiphany God calls you to be when Christ is born in your heart. O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

Grace and Peace,

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung

“...an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’”

Matthew 1:20b-23

Brothers and sisters in Christ, pause from your busyness for the moment and reflect on this – God is with us. Don’t dismiss this simple idea too quickly. Emmanuel – God is with us.  In this moment, in this age, in the place, in space, and in actuality, God. Is. With. Us.  Amazing.  Miraculous.  Overwhelming.  God is with us.

I wonder if our daily living reflects this fact?  Too often we reduce faith to a simplistic belief and acclamation with no deep substance.  We believe, Lord, help our unbelief.  What we say and how we act are sometimes very different things.  What we want to believe and what we truly believe can be different, too.

What does it look like when God is with us?  I offer a few thoughts, gifts perhaps that take some of the pressure off us as we strive to become committed disciples, living our faith in a world-transforming manner.

First, if God is with us, we can let go of our need to control everything.  We can be more fully in the moment, living in the present, allowing the past to rest, and the future to be, and become whatever it will be.  Anxiety, worry, guilt, and shame can all be released.  What we have been and done is not as important as who we are in the presence of God.  What we will be is taken care of, because God is with us – guiding and tending and teaching and supporting.  In the words of our ten-step sisters and brothers, we simply can “let go and let God.”  This is not an abdication of responsibility, but a resting in the providence and assurance that we are dwelling together with a loving God.

Second, we can let go of judgment.  It is not our responsibility to determine who God may engage with; God can take care of God’s self.  Any and all, sinner and saint, rich and poor, any race and creed, may experience Emmanuel – God with us – at God’s whim and will.  And we don’t have to worry about who is acceptable and who is not, who is blessed and who is cursed, who belongs and who doesn’t.  It simply is not our call.  God is with us ALL.  How wonderful to be freed from the awesome burden of judging others!

Third, we can serve and be served.  If God is truly with us, would we ever truly want for anything?  Those who have will share with those who lack.  Those who enjoy and celebrate will extend the celebration to include others.  Those who mourn and grieve will find comfort from God through the grace and kindness of others, because God is with us, supplying all we need to serve others and to be served by others.  When God is with us, we are lifted above our divisions to become one people of God.  We move beyond equality to equity; beyond tolerance to joyful community; beyond fear and suspicion to blessed assurance and amazing grace.  We need never worry again about survival, because when God is with us, uniting us and binding us in love, there is more than enough for all to thrive.

Beautiful people, let your God-given beauty to shine.  Make a commitment and goal to be an example of Emmanuel – God is with us.  At this Christmas time accept an amazing gift: God wants us to be gifts to one another!  And as we live as Emmanuel people, our witness to the world will be one of joy, peace, hope, justice, mercy and love.  I pray for you this Christmas time.  Pray for one another, and in all ways give thanks to God – for God is with us!

Grace and Peace,

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Matthew 6:34

Let me share with you what I want more than anything else for Christmas: I would like faith to displace fear as the driving motivational value in our global culture, community, and church.  Today’s church and world is being torn apart by fear, worry, anxiety, and angst.  Fear, in a multitude of disguises – anger, violence, prejudice, exclusion, judgmentalism, caustic rhetoric, suspicion, security systems and weapons, insult comedy, racism, sexism, classism, on and on – makes belief in a redeeming, saving, life-affirming, and generative faith seem irrational, unreasonable, gullible, and immature.  Who in their right mind would feel good about our world in its present condition?

Well, God for one.  “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  In a world of turmoil, conflict, and rampant fear, we have a Messiah, a Savior, a counter-cultural reality that has the power to transform and make all things new.

But fear is a pathology in our society.  It has taken root in our very DNA, and it causes us to act and react in some of the most toxic, unhelpful, self-defeating, and destructive ways possible.  It seems easier to break things than to fix them; to split apart instead of working together for unity and peace; sacrificing the common good and a universal peace and security for personal, private, and individual short-term, inadequate solutions.  Who can we trust?  The “other” is strange, foreign, unsettling, dangerous.  With this mindset, does the Gospel even stand a chance?

Two phrases in Greek, mE phobou andmE phobeisthe, occur frequently throughout the Christian scriptures.  The first simply means, “be not afraid,” while the second, more specifically and pointedly, means “YOU be not afraid,” and it is both plural and indicative.  If a person has faith, fear ceases to be an issue.  Faith and fear cannot occupy the same space.  Doubt or skepticism are not the opposites of faith; fear is.  Where God is present, fear flies out the window.  Jesus and Paul share the simple and clear admonition, “do not be afraid.”  Don’t make it harder than it needs to be: Jesus Christ, Savior of the World, Prince of Peace, Wonderful Counselor, Immanuel, Messiah, Lord of All, reigns in us – not fear.  If God is for us, who can stand against us?

What will happen to us in February after the special session of General Conference?  What happens if our borders allow too many foreigners into our country?  What if peace talks break down in Korea?  What if China gains too much power? What happens if we allow gay and lesbian leadership in the church? What happens if the other political party gains power?  What happens if the other political party stays in power? What about gun violence, disease, computer hackers and identity thieves? Well, what about them?  God is greater than any and all of our fears, anxieties, doubts, and delusions.

What I want most for Christmas is that we regain our center, and we reorient ourselves to God.  I want to see God’s people of faith to rise above our divisions to be a witness to the power and strength of God’s love and grace.  I want the world to look at the church and see a better way of being in the world and responding to the causes of so much fear and dread.  In short, I want us who have received the miracle of God’s love called Christmas, to live as Christmas people every day of the years to come.  People of faith, not fear; people of love and grace, not anxiety; people of hope and trust, not suspicion and distrust.

My prayer for all of you, beautiful people of the Wisconsin Conference, is that the peace of Christ may reign and rule in your hearts and minds, and may the Messiah be born again in your life this Christmas.

Grace and Peace,

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’

Jeremiah 33:14-16

For Christians, we celebrate the new liturgical year, which launches with Advent leading us to the joy of Christmas. This is a sacred time, but it is easy to fall into apathy and complacency. It has happened so many times before; it will happen again in each year to come. This extraordinary time has become all too ordinary.

But reflect with me on the immensity of what is to come – the birth of God on earth! The hopes and dreams of God’s people made real and manifest. For those who waited so long, this was the fulfillment of every hope.

For us today, I pray that this is more than simply a time of hope and waiting. Hope and waiting, as wonderful as they may be, are passive.  We may hope deeply for God to transform the world, and we may wait somewhat patiently for the Prince of Peace to arrive, but these are simply receiving grace from external sources.  I want to challenge and invite you to make this Advent season one of active preparation.  What will it take to make your heart, your mind, your soul and strength ready to receive the blessed Child of God as we remember and celebrate Jesus’ birth?  What steps will you take to make sure that the Christ remains central and foundational to the season of Christmas?

I encourage you to engage in three ways.

First, pray. Pray for God to reveal the fullness of the gift of the Christ child. Pray to fully comprehend God’s love, grace, kindness, forgiveness, mercy, generosity, and faithfulness.  Pray for peace for our world.  Pray that God’s love might transform our world into the very realm of heaven on earth.  Pray that all human beings may know the love of God.

Second, read. Read and reread the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke. Meditate on the meaning of these messages – their similarities and differences.  Contemplate on your most appropriate response to the gift of God’s own Son.  Find a devotional guide to help shape your reflection and thinking.  Celebrating Abundance by Walter Bruggemann, Advent for Everyone by N. T. Wright, God is in the Manger by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Preparing for Christmas by Richard Rohr are all excellent choices.  Make space every day to spend some quality time with God.

Third, act. Act for the good of others. Pay attention to those in need in our communities and world. Jesus was born in a humble place, among those in greatest want and need.  Let us look for the humble places in our own areas and seek tangible ways to make the love of God known.  From our abundance, let us feed the hungry, house the homeless, comfort the afflicted, offer healing to the sick and welcome to the stranger.  Let us make Christmas blessing the holy task of transforming belief into action.

Preparing for Christmas is very different from hoping or waiting for Christmas. Advent is an active, rather than a passive time.  Seek God’s graceful guidance and you will find it.  Our God is a God of gifts and generosity.  Receive with gladness what God offers to you this year and seek ways that you might share your blessing with others.

Grace and Peace,

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung

There are so many trials and tribulations, challenges and conflicts, anxieties and atrocities that it is easy to be caught up in a spiral of disillusionment and despair.  What is wrong with the world seems so much more obvious sometimes than what is right with the world.  Darkness looms large and long, and it is a test of faith to remain upbeat, positive, and hopeful.

But this is who are called to be.  Our God is the source of goodness and our Savior is the light of the world – and by extension, we are the light of the world.  We walk by faith, not by sight, and we hold fast to what we know in our hearts to be true: God works all things together for good with those who love God.  Even when the burdens, challenges, and costs are great, we are a people who celebrate not the liabilities, but all the gifts, the assets, the treasures, and blessings.

Thanksgiving is a United States holiday that could very easily be a Christian holiday.  It is a celebration of providence.  It is a celebration of abundance.  It is a celebration of generosity.  It is festival, jubilee, and feast.  It is a testament and witness to the goodness and love of God.  In all ways, at all times, in all places, and for a multitude of reasons, we should offer thanks and praise to God.

Thanksgiving is the holiday that immediately precedes Advent.  Adopting an attitude of gratitude and thanks prepares our hearts and minds to receive the greatest gift God has given us.  When we celebrate the blessings, we are doubly blessed, and we open ourselves to receive the Messiah.  All too often, we stuff our bodies at Thanksgiving with marvelous food; I invite you to stuff your spirit this Thanksgiving with the marvelous bounty of God’s grace, kindness, generosity, and joy.

You are all in my prayers, beautiful people of Wisconsin.  I wish you a blessed family holiday and a holy and transformational Advent season. 

Grace and Peace,

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung

Our hearts break for the tragedy in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life Synagogue.  At the same time, we are horrified by the attempted bombings of prominent American leaders, and the killings of two African-Americans in Kentucky.  There is no place in our world for the actions, attitudes and motivations that lead to hate-crimes and irrational acts of violence.  Can we not be better than this?

I believe that God has a vision for this world – that the world may be transformed into the very kingdom of God.  If kingdom language does not work for you, then for a realm of heaven – of grace and peace, and kindness and compassion; of mercy and justice for all grounded in forgiveness and healing.  All that hate can produce is hurt; but we are a people of grace, and we are called to heal.

Ours is a broken world.  The anger, the hurt, the frustration, and the hopelessness that many feel, manifests in violence – against self, against neighbor, and against the world in which we live.  Many people are unable to deal with the overwhelming burden of their disappointments and losses.  But, we cannot continue on our current course.  We cannot settle our differences with violence.  We cannot use weapons to bring peace.  We cannot couch hatred in the dressing of “righteous indignation” and do physical or emotional harm to brothers and sisters.  Hate is not of God.

Innocent and beloved children of God have been killed this week.  Senseless violence has taken sacred life.  People may want to debate “issues” and “rights” and “politics” but the basic reality is that brothers and sisters in the family of humankind have been violently killed.  We should mourn.  We should weep.  We should rend our garments.  Our family has been broken.

I am not simply talking of the victims.  It is crystal clear that those maliciously gunned down by weapons designed to take life need our prayer.  It is also clear that the families and friends of the victims need our prayers.  It is even fairly clear that the perpetrators of these acts of violence need our prayers.  What may not be as clear is that WE need our prayers.  Our culture is becoming one where violence is the first solution, and where animosity, hatred, violence, and destruction are viewed as acceptable options.  This must never be.

Our God is a God of reconciliation, love, mercy, and justice.  Ours is a God of grace who loves the whole of creation and who intends a redemption from hopelessness and despair to unity and acceptance.  Our God calls us from hate and hurt to grace and healing.

My brothers and sisters, let us engage deeply with the victims and families of the Tree of Life Synagogue and the young men killed in Kentucky.  Let us offer gratitude that the hateful acts of intended destruction through bombs did not succeed.  But let us also offer prayers that we may begin to work together to usher in God’s kingdom upon this earth – a kingdom of grace and peace, mercy and compassion, forgiveness and kindness, a community of generosity and love.  Hate cannot succeed.  It is only through love that we have a future.  Let us be known for our love in every way.

As United Methodist Christians we have so very much to celebrate.  We are known globally for our good works and life-giving, life-saving ministries.  I am so proud to serve as president of our General Board of Global Ministries and to see the impact UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) continues to make.  My heart swells to see the dedicated women and men serving in so many ways to bring mercy, justice, healing, and restoration to the world.  It is an important mission that we have – to make faithful disciples of Jesus Christ who can work together by God’s grace and guidance to transform our world into the very image of heaven on earth.

But as the Council of Bishops met earlier this month, we engaged in a humbling, troubling, and urgent conversation about racism in our country and world.  In many ways, in many places, and with many people we have made great strides in healthy race relations.  At the same time, we live in an “us-them” culture that too often focuses more on differences and divisions than on commonalities and connections.  We see a rise in hate crimes that are racially, ethnically, theologically, or culturally motivated and cannot help but question why we cannot do better.  What role may the church play in “breaking down the dividing walls” and eliminating the “hostility” that leads to destruction, violence, and prejudice?  What is our witness?

We are a people bookended by the Tower of Babel where our “language was confused” (Genesis 11) and we could no longer maintain a unity of understanding and mutuality, and a Pentecost where by the power of the Holy Spirit language difference was conquered and we became a people of a common faith, hope, and love all empowered by that same Spirit (Acts 2).

What is it in the human psyche that looks for ways to judge and suspect and fear “the other?”  Why is “different” bad?  In almost every human endeavor – from agriculture to biology, from meteorology to chemistry, from art to literature to music to culinary arts – we understand that diversity, complementarity, contrast, and harmony are positive and healthy and good.  Why does this same essential wisdom not translate to the whole, broad, diverse, and eclectic reality that is the human race?

Skin color, language, dress, worldview, culture – none of these things in and of themselves is good or bad, better or worse, superior or inferior.  Yes, they are different, but who are we to say “ours is better than theirs?”  Jesus teaches, and Paul confirms, that we are one – no longer Greek or Jew, slave or free, male or female (this or that, either/or) – we have been drawn together in love and grace and kindness and holy generosity to be forgiven our failings and flaws and to be made one in Christ.

Our Bishops are engaged in continuing work through a Dismantling Racism Task Force.  In our own Annual Conference, our Connectional Table has made the elimination of institutional racism a core priority of its work.  It is critically important that we open our eyes to the reality in our culture and be honest about violent acts motivated by race, and do all we can to oppose them.  Let us pray together that we might view all people as sisters and brothers, let us celebrate what we share in common as well as what we each uniquely bring to the community, and let us stand together in opposition to any act of prejudice, bigotry, bias, and racism.  By God’s grace, Jesus’ kind compassion, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, may we witness to the goodness of ALL of God’s people.