And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. A gale arose on the lake, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, Lord, save us! We are perishing!And he said to them, Why are you afraid, you of little faith?Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?'    Matthew 8:23-27

Our world, our culture, our church – so many sources of anxiety, discomfort, fear and anger.  Truly, people of faith have rarely been more tested than today.  Yet, this is what it means to be a people of faith – to stand fast in the conviction that God is in charge, and even the winds and the sea obey him!”  We may not like what we see with our eyes, but in our hearts the Spirit of the living God prevails.  We may shake our fists in outrage at the injustices, personal or shared, but the Prince of Peace abides.  We may worry about our own future, the future of our church, the future of our country, or the future of our world, but the grace of the Redeemer has the final word.

As the days pass quickly until this year’s General Conference in May, anxiety is mounting, rumors abound, information and misinformation mix together to make people even more confused instead of more confident.  What we know and what we think we know become blended into a thousand and one “truths”.  In the wake of the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation,” and its comparison with other plans and proposals, people are less sure about the future of The United Methodist Church than ever.  Media attention and popular opinion obscure the current reality; many people believe decisions have already been made, when in fact we are still a few months away from General Conference action.

We must be careful not to be caught up in hysteria and false rhetoric.  Our fate has not been decided, and I would remind us all that our future and our hope rest with God.  I am still committed to be the Bishop of all God’s people, all across our theological and denominational spectrum.  Do I agree with all?  Certainly not.  Do I condone the words and actions of all?  Again, no.  But do I affirm the baptism and confession of all and seek to see the Christ in all?  May it ever be so!

My beautiful Wisconsin siblings, Greetings from El Salvador!  I am here with the cabinet to visit our own Jorge Mayorga’s homeland and to share in a mission trip and relationship building journey.  We bring the love of Christ from Wisconsin to be blessed in return by God’s love in El Salvador.

I am amazed by the leadership and hospitality of Bishop Juan de Dios.  I am also impressed by the missionaries here. We had a wonderful time in Ahuachapán painting a school and getting to know the residents of the area.  We toured churches and ministries, visited Ataco, then journeyed to Entre Nubes for worship and a luncheon.  In addition to more painting, we participated in a food distribution project, and we are preparing for two days of Bible School.

My sacred and beloved siblings in Christ, our Council of Bishops endorsed the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation proposal that offers an end to the current deep division in our United Methodist Church.  I have mixed feelings about the proposal and what it means.

On the one hand, it not only recognizes our differences, but honors a very broad spectrum of beliefs, interpretations, visions, and desires for the church.  Not everyone will be happy, but that has been part of our dilemma – there is no way forward that everyone will agree with or support.  Our guidance to “Do No Harm,” comes to a place of doing the least harm possible in the short term, that we might do more good in the long term.  The Protocol offers a way for moderate and progressive United Methodists to be in ministry in a fully inclusive church and for traditionalists to continue in a ministry that honors certain restrictions.  This also recognizes that there is no healthy, adequate “one-size-fits-all” polity and doctrine for a wondrously diverse global church.  We have arrived at a place where graceful autonomy is required for different regions of our planet to make decisions that allow for effective ministry and witness.  The decisions most appropriate for The United Methodist Church in the United States are not appropriate for Africa, Russia, the Philippines, or other regions of our church.  We progress, we evolve, we adapt at different levels, in different ways, at different times.  In this case, unity has not been a strength. 

“Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.'”

Matthew 25:45 (read Matthew 25:31-46)

What a truly amazing and wondrous time Advent leading to Christmas and beyond to Epiphany is.  Perhaps we have become too familiar with it for it to have the incredible impact it should.  God has been born on earth.  A poor carpenter and a young peasant maiden have been tasked to raise the Christ child.  Lowly fringe characters, shepherds are the first to visit.  After a time, Gentile astrologers visit, bringing gifts and bowing in worship.  This inauspicious beginning heralds the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.  It is absurd, ridiculous, and sets the stage for a gospel we love, but often choose to ignore:   God sent Jesus to give hope to the least among us.

We live in a heartbreakingly torn and battered world.  About ten percent of the world’s population experiences luxury; another 20 percent experience a large measure of comfort and security; but about 50% struggle with daily necessities and basic needs; and 20% are locked in a constant struggle for survival.  This should not be, and a sacred trust and responsibility rests with those of us called Christian to bring equity, economic justice, and safety to our broken world.

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
   let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
   let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
   before the Lord; for he is coming,
   for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
   and the peoples with his truth.

Psalm 96:11-13 (read Psalm 96)

“Joy to the world! The Lord is come, let earth receive her King! Let every heart prepare him room and heaven and nature sing.” My siblings in Christ, what are you doing this year to “prepare him room”?  I cannot reflect on the call to prepare room for Jesus without reflecting on those whom feel there is no room for them in our church.  If we will not make room for those whom Jesus loves, we do not make room for Jesus.

Being a Bishop is a humbling experience.  We are treated with great honor and respect, but we also encounter much unhappiness, challenge, and anger.  We are in a very fragile and hurtful phase in the life of our church.  This focuses on who we should have in our churches.  Do we want paroled criminals in our churches?  Do we want the poor, especially when they are unwashed, pungent, and sometimes disruptive?  Do we want those with mental, emotional, and physical challenges?  We are already struggling with our lesbian, gay, trans, bi, queer, intersex, asexual/ally siblings.  We still wrestle with powerful and repeated vestiges of racism and sexism.  There are many people whom Jesus loves that we are not comfortable with.

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light;

Romans 13:11-12

Some might say that today we are wandering in great darkness.  Division in our culture, division in our church, division in our politics, division in many communities and homes.  Division equals darkness.  We feel we are living in dreary, depressing, darkening days.

And the ransomed of the Lordshall return,
   and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
   they shall obtain joy and gladness,
   and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Isaiah 35:10 (read Isaiah 35:1-10)

When I think of all the beautiful people in our Wisconsin United Methodist Churches, I realize that the vast majority of us enjoy a freedom and safety that the majority of people in our world may never know.  Freedom, and the many entitlements we receive, is too often taken for granted.  We truly do not know “how the other half (or two-thirds) lives.”  I have a deep wish that every United Methodist could travel to other parts of the world where the day-to-day reality is struggle, strife, subsistence, and survival.  It is eye opening.  It makes one so thankful for all the blessings we receive.

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to come
   the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
   and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
   Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
   to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
   and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
   and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
   and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
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 any more.

Isaiah 2:1-5

It is hard to believe we have arrived at another advent, the beginning of our church year, and the time of preparation for the coming of the Messiah.  We come again to a new beginning, and while we may be swept up in the holiday festivities between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we should take some time for deep reflection about what this all means.  Think with me, if you will, about what it might have been like in the first century for those awaiting God’s promises.

O give thanks to the Lord, call on his name,
   make known his deeds among the peoples.
Sing to him, sing praises to him,
   tell of all his wonderful works.
Glory in his holy name;
   let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
Seek the Lord and his strength,
   seek his presence continually.
Remember the wonderful works he has done,
   his miracles, and the judgements he uttered,
O offspring of his servant Israel,
   children of Jacob, his chosen ones.

1 Chronicles 16:8-13

The Thanksgiving holiday comes and goes, year after year, and beyond the bountiful feast, time with family and friends, we may come to take it for granted.  This is an excellent annual reminder to be deeply grateful for the many blessings we receive in life – for God’s providence, for richness, for fullness, for abundance.  All we have, we have received from God.  The majority of people in the United States have more than we need.  We are afforded wonderful comforts, dependable security, and frequent luxury.  We have so very much to be thankful for.  Sadly, this comfortable abundance is not experienced by so many.

He shall judge between the nations,
   and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
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 any more.

Isaiah 2:4

This year will be the 101st  observance of Veteran’s Day in the United States.  For some this poses an ethical dilemma – those who oppose war, but honor, value, and support the brave men and women who selflessly serve to defend their country.  It is not always easy to stand against war, while supporting soldiers.  Military veterans sometimes feel disrespected when they hear a pacifist opposition to warfare.

Yet, following centuries of bloodshed it is difficult to agree that violence is the best pathway to peace.  Our Hebrew scriptures are full of battle, conquest, pillage and violence, but our Savior is the “Prince of Peace.”  Blessed are the peacemakers.  Christ offers a heavenly and spiritual peace to the community in John.  In the face of enemy aggression, we are invited to turn the other cheek.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

James 4:7-10

This is an odd time of year liturgically and culturally.  We have created an odd and fantastic cultural holiday called Halloween, which finds its roots in All Hallows Eve and All Saints Day.  It cannot be denied that both Halloween and All Saints Day have gone through superstitious and irrational evolutions throughout the ages.  But they both bring us back to an eternal and nagging decision: do we choose good or evil?

This may almost sound absurd to modern ears, but it has been a religious and philosophical dilemma for millennia.  Human beings are “double-minded.”  Their articulated values – what they say is most important – does not always (often?) align with their lived values – what they give most of their time, energy, and attention to.

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.*Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’

Luke 10:38-42

This is such a familiar passage of scripture that we might think we have nothing new to learn from it.  Seemingly, this story preferences the devout attention of Mary to the many tasks of Martha.  For the Martha’s in this world, there is a sense of injustice.  Isn’t service and care as important as devotional attention?  Aren’t we called to be doers of the Word and not hearers only?  Shouldn’t Mary bear part of the load in order to free Martha to sit devoutly at the Lord’s feet?

This is a classic example of meaning and message getting lost in translation.  Latin, Greek, and Coptic translations offer subtle, but significant differences to this passage that I believe are important for us today.  In a basic and fundamental way, this is not an “either/or” story (being like Mary – good; being like Martha – bad), but a “both/and” story (two ways to relate to the Lord).  You see, the problem is not that Martha is doing anything wrong, and that Mary is in the right, but the key relates to another teaching of Jesus; that of Matthew 7:1-3, ‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?’  Mary is perfectly happy and at ease with the choice she made.  But Martha is judging that Mary should choose differently.  Martha tries to impose a Martha standard on Mary.  Jesus in effect is saying to Martha, “Mary has chosen what is right for Mary, you Martha have chosen what is right for Martha.  Stop trying to make Mary into a Martha.  Be at peace with your own choice for yourself.”

And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. A gale arose on the lake, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, ‘Lord, save us! We are perishing!’ And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, you of little faith?’ Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?’

Matthew 8:23-27

In the wake of hurricane Dorian and in the midst of hurricane season, stormy seas provide a vivid image and a metaphor for life.  Throughout our world, throughout our country, throughout our church, and in our individual lives, storms are raging.  Some are physical.  Some are actual natural disasters. Some are emotional, some relational, some institutional, and some spiritual.  In tempest tossed times it is well to remember we worship a Savior “that even the winds and the sea obey him.”

As physical flood waters recede, I am amazed and impressed by the compassion and generosity of people.  Throughout our denomination, people set aside differences and disagreements to rally together in mercy and relief efforts.  And not only in the immediate response time.  I lift up and celebrate the ongoing and faithful work of ministries such as that at the Winding Rivers UMC under Deborah Burkhalter’s fine leadership, partnering with community, conference Volunteers in Mission, and regional relief organizations to help rebuild and restore community life following fall and spring flooding.  Natural disasters have long-term effects, and it is easy to think the need passes as quickly as the event.

The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.

Psalm 104:16

I have been reflecting on the imagery from scripture concerning trees, especially the “cedars of Lebanon,” mentioned so often in scripture.  The mighty cedars were planted by God.  They represent the sound, the solid, the enduring –in essence the very will of God.  Repeatedly, the historians and prophets point to the destruction of the cedars of Lebanon as the sign of disobedience, disrespect, and disregard for God’s creation and covenant.

I find the metaphor of trees in a forest compelling, especially the redwood tree.  Redwoods grow to amazing heights, though they do not lay down deep roots.  Instead, the root system stretches wide, and the roots intertwine and fuse together with other redwoods.  One 350-foot redwood has roots stretching 100 feet from the trunk, creating an interconnected network of roots that gives strength and stability to the entire forest.  This interdependence is an excellent image of what our strong United Methodist Church system should be.  As each tree grows, it strengthens the system; what affects one part of the system, affects the whole.  Very similar to the Paul’s image of the Body of Christ in I Corinthians 12 – where one member suffers, all suffer; where one is honored, all benefit.