“Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, “Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.”’ And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked towards the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, ‘I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning, you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.”’

Exodus 16:9-12

My blessed brothers, sisters, and siblings in Christ Jesus, I give you my thanks and appreciation.  I am honored and proud to be the bishop of this great Wisconsin Conference.  Together this past weekend we spent time wandering in our wilderness of confusion, disagreement, discernment, and desire to be a faithful church.  It was not an easy time.  There were ups and downs, times to celebrate and times to repent.  We struggled in our work to be civil and respectful, and I was reminded to say clearly what behaviors would be acceptable – respectful disagreement and civil confrontation – and the unacceptable – bullying, disrespecting, and injuring.  But we came through it all together, and we saw the glory of the Lord in the cloud.  Everything may not be clear, but we see God in our midst!

I am still processing all that happened, but I rejoice again in our worship celebrations, the excellent and challenging Bible study provided by our brother, Peter Miano, the energy and faithful spirit of our young people, and the obvious, widespread desire to do justly and rightly to all people.

Our Annual Conference indicated in clear terms its dissatisfaction with the actions of General Conference to pass the Traditional Plan.  Together we strategized ways to be faithful with our apportionment giving, to witness to our desire for full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ peoples, to bring the language of our Book of Discipline in line with our lived reality, and to move forward into a more loving and grace-filled church.  It is clear that we have a long way to go, that we must make amends and apologize for hurtful actions, but that there is deep commitment to work together for a better, more loving church.

This is true not only of the LGBTQIA+ people who question whether The United Methodist Church really cares about and for them but is equally true for many of our racial and ethnic people who deal daily with destructive acts and attitudes of racism.  In some of our Christian communities, hurtful and hateful words and actions communicate to both clergy and laity leadership that they are not welcome, not respected, and not supported.  This is not true everywhere and of a majority of people, but racism in any form, in any place, and at any time is not an acceptable expression of Christians.  Part of our wilderness is particular and institutional racism, and it is a priority for Wisconsin Conference to work to eliminate racism in all its forms.

We elected a slate of General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference delegates that reflect our desire to change and move forward.  We elected a diverse and future-focused delegation of thoughtful, faithful, and dynamic clergy and laity.  Pray for your delegation as they prepare for General Conference 2020.  We have an amazing bunch of people to represent us.

We are committed to work on a Wisconsin option – a Wisconsin way forward to be a faithful and loving church, with great vision for mercy and justice ministries, for reaching new people in new places, and to strengthen our existing ministries, we reaffirmed our desire to be good stewards of all we possess.  Our Launch Out! campaign is still very much a priority, but we voted to “pause,” to give time for local churches to address their response to our general church decisions.

We affirmed our desire to stay in Sun Prairie and to own our Conference Center.  In the midst of massive and disruptive change, we still hold our Conference Center.  By God’s grace, we will find new and better ways to address our administrative needs.  We still face severe budgetary challenges.  We still have less than we need to fully fund all our key ministries.  We are in different places in our desire to financially support the denomination and connection.  But we are in all these things together, and are working together on a Wisconsin way forward.

We are in a time of turbulence and change.  This is wilderness at its wildest.  Tempest and storm, intense heat, high winds – together we acknowledged that we cannot get through without God’s help and guidance.  But God makes us strong.  God keeps us strong.  What looks so overwhelming at the moment will seem less intimidating as time goes by.  We have dynamic young leaders.  We have powerful cross-cultural leaders.  We have clergy and laity leaders committed to the faithful ministry and witness of the Wisconsin Conference.  Is everyone happy with where we are?  No.  Many are unhappy.  But we are still faithful.  This is a measure of faith – following Jesus, serving God, loving neighbor whether we are happy or not.

Wilderness time is not fun time, but it is rich time.  Wilderness time is not comfortable time, but it is valuable time.  Wilderness time is not stable time, but it is essential time.  Our deepest desire is not just to survive the wilderness, but to thrive. We come through wilderness stronger, wiser, better prepared and more confident.  I am encouraged by our time together.  As a Conference, we have spoken.  As a Conference, we have witnessed to inclusiveness, justice, and a place for all at God’s table.  Do we still disagree?  Yes.  Is there still pain? Yes.  But do we believe – truly know – that God is with us?  Undeniably YES.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Grace and Peace, 

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes!

Matthew 18:1-7

There is an ancient Jewish proverb that advises, “When faced with two options, choose the third.”  There is profound wisdom in this challenge to simplistic, either/or thinking.  We are products of a binary culture, where we often limit ourselves to this or that, right or wrong, inclusive or exclusive thinking.  Our entire denomination is currently engaged in multiple levels of either/or thinking – traditional or progressive, unity or schism, stay or go debates across the global church.  The Jewish proverb invites us to ask, are there other options to consider?

Conservative and traditionalist United Methodists are exploring an option for separating from the established denomination, while liberal-progressive United Methodists are discussing their own faith communion.  In many cases, these two groups are tired of talking to, at, and about each other.  They seek a solution that will allow them to be in ministry with those who are like-minded, theologically aligned, and who share a similar belief system.  But there is still a place for rich theological diversity, sound Biblical interpretation, and a broad perspective on what it means to live a faithful life.  This is heart and soul of the movement John and Charles Wesley launched and that we know as United Methodism today.  Beyond the traditional option, beyond the progressive option, I believe there is a Wisconsin option.

Wisconsinites are known for individualism, freedom of opinion, and a strong attitude that no one can tell them what to think or do.  There is also a stream of cultural belief that aligns well with John Wesley’s General Rules – no do harm, do good, and attend to the ordinances of God (or at least the Green Bay Packers).  I would like to envision a Wisconsin Option grounded in Wesley’s Rules.

Doing no harm is not truly an option or a choice for Christians.  Doing harm to any child of God is fraught with danger.  What could happen if we were all to covenant to do no harm?  What if judgement, condemnation, insult, injury, and attack were taken off the table?  I can assure you that our Wisconsin cabinet strives to live by this rule.  We try to match good leadership with congregational need.  We commit never to act punitively to any pastor based on their theological position or beliefs.  We seek in every way to hold leaders accountable to the highest standards of quality leadership, but we see this as a way to improve, not punish.  We do not support church trials, but seek just resolution instead.  We are committed to living in the “grace margin,” a space defined by forgiveness, inclusion, and respect – for God, for the scriptures, for creation, and for all God’s gifted people.

Creating a grace margin where everyone can be together even when they disagree and dispute each other’s opinions and beliefs is our vision.  We view every person as a good person, justified by God’s grace and gifted to lead in God’s church.  As I think about our Wisconsin Conference, I am struck by our camp and retreat ministries.  Nick Coenen and Collin Grooms and our camp staffs don’t discriminate based on age, gender, race, sexual orientation, beliefs, or cultural values.  All are welcome at camp, and everyone receives the same warm reception and service.  Our camps are realized grace margins – space where everyone belongs, where no one is turned away.  Many of our mission ministries model the same inclusion.  We serve those in need.  We set aside differences to unite in Christian service.  We form community that is richly diverse in order to bring the love and grace of Christ to those in need.  This is the Wisconsin option – to adopt a mutual acceptance of the good God calls us to despite our differences.

The Wisconsin option cannot happen by accident.  We must work together to design a sustainable future for United Methodism in Wisconsin.  Some will want to leave, regardless of the harm it will do.  But most will want to stay, work together, and rally around the potential of being a bright and shining light in the darkness.  The Wisconsin option is to proclaim to the world that there is a place at the table for everyone, and together we are stronger than we will ever be split apart.

Grace and Peace,

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung

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

At the heart of the Mary and Martha story is an object lesson in passing judgement and expecting everyone to think and act the same way.  Mary focuses on Jesus, while Martha is fixated on Mary and the fact that Mary isn’t helping her.  A wonderful parable for our day.  The more we focus on ourselves, and the more we focus on “those people” who don’t think, believe, and act as we do, the less time we have to focus on God, Jesus, and the mission to which we are called.

I keep thinking about a Wisconsin Option, one that does not divide, but unites; one that does not destroy, but builds; and, one that does not judge, but celebrates.  Like Mary, I want Wisconsin to choose “the better part,” to enter the grace margin extended by Jesus Christ that allows the entire family of God to work, and live, and minister together.  In God’s grand a glorious family we experience the full diversity of God’s creation, and with God we see the goodness. 

In John Wesley’s General Rules, the first stage is to do no harm.  The Wisconsin Option builds on this foundation.  We stop engaging in conversations and actions that intentionally and unintentionally do harm to others.  We drop the defensiveness, we let go of the judgement, and we recall Wesley’s own words of instruction to do no harm by “fighting, quarreling, brawling, brother going to law with brother (sic), returning evil for evil, or railing for railing, uncharitable conversation; particularly speaking evil of magistrates or of ministers.”

But the Wisconsin Option builds on this foundation by incorporating the second rule, to do all the good we can of every possible sort.  This means that we do everything we can for the glory of God.  This means we honor and accept all God’s children; exclusion is a human trait, not God’s will.  I am often asked why I envision a church that fully includes and honors the gifts of the LGBTQIA+ people, and my reply is simple: as a leader in God’s church, I can see no other future. 

Wisconsin Conference has always led in significant ways.  When Japanese sentiment in the United States was still negative, Wisconsin Conference supported Perry Saito.  Perry helped found the Fellowship of Reconciliation.  We celebrate his spirit and commitment.  It is part of the Wisconsin Option.  Wisconsin received the very first woman bishop, at a time when many conferences we opposed to her episcopacy.  Wisconsin opened itself to her wonderful leadership.  This spirit of inclusiveness and openness is part of the Wisconsin Option.  University UMC went against Methodist doctrine and polity in 1984 when it became the first reconciling congregation in the state.  Many have followed their example.  This was transformative for University UMC, for the conference, and especially for me.  I was overwhelmed by the vision of a church for all people.  I understood the concept of “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors” in a real and tangible way sixteen years before it became our denominational motto.

Wisconsin has worked hard and faithfully to do all the good it can for all the people it can.  I want this to continue to be true.  Conservatives do good.  Liberals do good.  Progressives do good.  Traditionalists do good.  Centrists do good.  All the labels, all the categories, all the diverse theologies and biblical interpretations do good.  But only when we first do no harm.

I am calling Wisconsin to a radical future.  Radical means “root”.  I want us to remember who we are, who we have been, and to discern together who God calls us to be.  I want us to choose the Wisconsin Option that challenges us to make Wesley’s General Rules REAL.  Like Mary, we need to choose the better part – stop being “distracted by many things” – and listen to what Jesus has to say to us today.

Grace and Peace,

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung

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

Immediately it struck into my mind, “Leave off preaching. How can you preach to others, who have not faith yourself?” I asked Bohler whether he thought I should leave it off or not. He answered, “By no means.” I asked, “But what can I preach?” He said, “Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”    John Wesley

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live,…    Deuteronomy 30:19

There are many people in our United Methodist Church today who are not experiencing the peace of Christ in their hearts, minds, and spirits.  Rarely in our history has there been such division, such hurt, such disagreement, such anxiety, and such widespread discontent.  This is one of the reasons that we changed our Annual Conference theme to “Wilderness.”  Wilderness is not our destination, but it is an accurate appraisal of our current reality.

The hard question that challenges us at this moment in time is this: do we still believe there is a Promised Land on the other side of the wilderness?  Are we still moving toward a “future with hope?”  Is there ANY possibility we can make this journey together?

I understand that many people are feeling desperation and hopelessness.  There are many who feel our only future is to divide, go our separate ways, and continue our journey with only the like-minded and acquiescent.  To some people, the integrity of the body of Christ has been so badly compromised that they no longer choose to fight for unity.

My deepest hope and prayer through this messy and hurtful time is that God’s Holy Spirit might inspire and work through our better natures, that we might make the healthiest, most sustainable, and least damaging choices possible.  Once we burn our bridges, we limit our options, perhaps to our detriment.  So, a very important first step is to acknowledge that what we are doing is making choices.

One lay person in our conference wrote, “you leave me no choice but to leave The United Methodist Church.”  It doesn’t matter whether this person is conservative or progressive, liberal or traditional – what matters is that she has given away her power by saying she has no choice.  I want to say that no matter how upset we are, no matter how angry we may be, no matter that others make decisions we disagree with, we still have choice.  We may not choose to feel frightened or angry or anxious or confused, but we still have power to decide how we will respond.

Every time I write or speak about what is happening in our denomination and our conference, some people like what I say, some vehemently dislike what I say, some have no idea what I am saying.  If I say, “I will work to lead a church that welcomes ALL people,” I get a wide variety of responses.  Some people praise me, some say I do not go nearly far enough, some say I go too far, but it is not as interesting to me what people say as how they say it.  Some will tell me they disagree with me, some that they do not understand how I can say what I do, some say they are disappointed by what I said, but others insult and say terribly personal things.  These people choose how they will disagree with me.

I am calling upon the beautiful people of the Wisconsin Conference to carefully, mindfully, kindly, compassionately, and with mercy and justice in mind, choose how you will live through this time of division and hurt and anxiety.  Choose life over death; choose blessing over curse; choose hope over despair; choose grace over judgement and condemnation.  Choose to preach faith and love and hope, even when you don’t feel it.  Choose to be patient and gentle and generous so that you might be numbered among the peace-makers that Jesus blesses.  And above all, don’t give up.  Choose to fight for a church that equips all people to be gifted and used by God for the transformation of the world.  Choose to look at all we can be, not where we fail and where we disagree.  The good that God calls us to be is greater than any bad of human design.  Choose God and let us make our way through the present wilderness to a future brimming with hope and promise.

Grace and Peace,

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung

For ‘no human being will be justified in his sight’ by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.   But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ*for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement*by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

Romans 3:20-26

There are many United Methodists who are questioning whether we actually believe in the grace of God freely given.  The recent session of General Conference redefined the foundation of our faith to create winners and losers, insiders and outsiders, and to differentiate the acceptable from the unacceptable.  Theologically, we adopted a legalism that defies our Easter reality of grace freely given as atonement for the sins of the world.  At the same time, there are some United Methodists who feel we have strengthened our moral center.  This is a hard time in the life of our church where beliefs are leading to destructive behaviors.  We are doing harm while failing to do good, and it is impacting our ability to stay in love with God and with each other.

But if our faith story teaches us anything, it is that God never allows us to stay stuck in the mire of bad behavior and evil intentions.  God truly does work all things together for good with those who love God.  In our history we have violated human rights and the common good in the name of Christianity, but we have always learned to be better and grown beyond our short-term limitations.  This is what we need to do now.  And I believe God is working with us, creating for us a grace margin where we can treat one another with patience and lovingkindness.

Our United Methodist Church is still processing the votes taken at the recent special session of our General Conference.  This past week, the Judicial Council of our denomination met to determine the constitutionality of the component parts of the Traditional Plan (passed 438 to 384) and a “gracious exit” proposal for disaffiliation.  Many parts of the Traditional Plan are still ruled unconstitutional, yet a number of aspects have been approved in decision 1378. 

In decision 1379, the Judicial Council approved an exit strategy for local churches wanting to leave the denomination that meet three criteria.  First, disaffiliation requires a two-thirds majority of voting members present at a local church conference.  Second, there must be clearly defined conditions of disaffiliation created by the conference Board of Trustees for the local church to follow.  Third, approval of disaffiliation must be affirmed by simple majority vote of the Annual Conference. 

The recent rulings of our Judicial Council (decisions 1378 & 1379) determine the constitutionality of our General Conference actions; they do not validate or refute the intentions behind them.  Much of the Traditional Plan is still unconstitutional and at its core it promotes unity for some, but not for all.  The Disaffiliation plan is antithetical to unity, though it complies with the will of the 2019 voting delegates to General Conference – a vote of 402 in favor, 400 against.  Those who claim that the General Conference was of a single mind, heart, and spirit simply were not paying attention.  At this moment in time, United Methodism is a house divided.

As bishop, I am firmly committed to living in the grace margin, using my influence and positional power to work for an inclusive, life-giving, gift-affirming church that serves and welcomes all of God’s children.  In this time of division and debate, it is easy to become discouraged.

This, however, is not the end, nor is it the whole story.  Too many kind, loving, generous, and welcoming women and men are fighting for our church and our denomination.  Too many people favor love over judgement, grace over law, and inclusion over exclusion.  We are realizing that a “one-size-fits-all” approach to our Christian faith does not honor cultural, racial, ethnic, and genetic diversity.  We are also awakening to the dead-end caused by labeling “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive,” “traditional,” etc.  There are no simple answers to complex life issues.  Love is not simple.  Love is demanding.  Love requires sacrifice.  We believe in the atoning love of God in Jesus Christ, acknowledging both the brokenness of all as well as the giftedness and blessedness of all.  We, all of us together, are challenged to live our faith, to confess “yes, we believe,” and to live grace-filled and loving lives that witness to God’s atoning gift freely given for all.

Grace and Peace,

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung

While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’

Acts 1:4-5

With all that is happening in our denomination and in our Wisconsin Conference, we truly needed Easter to come this year to remind us of the great and glorious power God has for transformation and redemption.  We stand in need of new life – new possibilities, new purpose, new hearts, and new minds.  Easter brings us hope following despair, light following darkness, and promise following failure.

It is simple to celebrate the resurrection and feel all is well.  Death is defeated.  Sin is cleansed. A new reality has been ushered in.  But what next?  Where do we go from Easter?  What’s on the other side?

One might be tempted to think it all gets easier after Easter.  One might feel like the Christ has taken care of all the problems of the world, and now all we need to do is wait.  One would be wrong; it doesn’t get easier, it just gets more interesting.  Following the physical Jesus is one thing.  We call it discipleship – Jesus leads, we follow.  But what about the risen and ascended Christ?  What do we do when the man is no longer with us to follow?  What happens when what we have is memory and teachings?

This is the amazing aftermath of Easter leading us to Pentecost.  John baptized with water; Jesus promises the baptism of the Holy Spirit.  The twelve followers of Jesus are referred to as “disciples” up until the Pentecost event, then they are never referred to as “disciples” again.  Something happens.  There is a radical and fundamental transformation in the Spirit.  Followers become leaders.  Students become teachers.  Disciples become disciplers, and stewards, and apostles.  And collectively, through the gifting and empowerment of the Holy Spirit, the church becomes the incarnate body of Christ.

Paul speaks of an affective union – a oneness of essence and spirit as believers live “in Christ,” and we recognize “Christ in us.”  The fellowship of baptized believers is transformed, made new, given a new identity and purpose.  What Christ came to teach us, we now teach others.  The witness Christ offered to challenge the powers and principalities becomes our witness.  Judgmentalism and factionalism drops away; we are lifted above all the hostilities, the prejudices, and debates that created “dividing walls” among us.  The old life passes away; the new life emerges.

Is this not the message our United Methodist Church needs most to hear?  Are we not standing on the threshold of an amazing spiritual paradigm shift where we quit focusing on the negatives and begin building upon the positives?  Is it not time to stop harping on what we have been saved from and begin zeroing in on what we have been saved for?

God offers us this new life, freely, generously, unconditionally, and completely.  All we need do is accept it, but accept it with our eyes, hearts, and minds wide open.  We are not off the hook.  No, instead we hold even more responsibility, more opportunity, more demands and obligations than ever.  But we have also been given the authority to become a new people; a people of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  We are freed to act mercifully, justly, with compassion, humility and true care.  We become a people of deep civility, infinite respect, unbounded forgiveness, and amazing grace.  We are living on the other side of Easter.  By God’s grace, let us live it wisely and well. 

When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, ‘You will all become deserters; for it is written,
“I will strike the shepherd,
   and the sheep will be scattered.”
But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.’

Mark 14:26-28

How difficult must it have been for Jesus to face his final hours not knowing whether his followers could carry on the mission that he launched?  It is beyond the imagination of most of us to conceive all that Jesus was feeling and facing during this time that we have come to call “Holy Week.”  Ushered into Jerusalem with the shouts of “Hosanna,” and received as a fulfillment to prophecy one day, confronting and challenging political, military, and religious leadership in days following, saying goodbye and being arrested, tried, beaten, and crucified.  Few of us can fathom the stress and emotion of this time.  And Jesus questioned whether his closest friends and followers ever fully grasped what was to come.  Peter’s denial.  Judas’ betrayal.  The abandonment of the remaining disciples.  The rejection of the crowds.  The mockery.  The agony.  Feeling forsaken.

Only Easter allows this to make any sense.  Only the resurrection and all it symbolizes and means provides any redemption to this level of sacrifice and suffering.  No wonder we often race to Easter, to celebrate new life in Jesus, to escape the darkness and despair of Good Friday and Black Saturday.  Who wants to dwell in uncertainty, doubt, guilt, remorse and shame?

Yet, there is much value and benefit to thinking through our own discipleship and commitment as we prepare to meet the risen Lord.  It is easy to judge Peter, to condemn Judas, to shake our heads at James and John and Thomas and the others.  But staying together and staying committed is always easier from a distance.  There is a good chance that we would not have fared any better than the disciples were we to find ourselves in their places.

Deserting in both big and small ways is a natural and normal defense mechanism.  We seek safety and survival.  We seek comfort and protection.  When the storms are raging all around us, we look for cover and sanctuary.  Who intentionally heads into danger and threat?

But we sometimes forget that there is NO Easter without Good Friday and all the events leading up to it.  The road to Easter is rocky and rough, but that makes it all the more amazing, all the more miraculous.  God prepares the road for us.  God walks the road with us.  God waits for us at the other end.  But only if we stay on the road from start to finish.

Our United Methodist Church is going through some rough times.  We are on a rocky road.  People are failing.  People are betraying.  People are being hurt.  People are feeling abandoned.  People are giving into weakness.  People are lashing out – with words if not with swords.  People are running away.  People are hiding.

Should we condemn them?  Should we judge?  Are we not among them?  Perhaps the best course of action is one of grace and humility and gentleness and kindness.  Perhaps we need to understand that we need each other to make it up the road, to get through the darkness, and to emerge – together – into the light of resurrection and new life.

In the pain and suffering of loss, betrayal, loneliness, darkness, and despair, we can get distracted.  We can begin to feel that what we are experiencing in the moment is the ultimate reality.  But we are Easter people.  Darkness never defeats the light.  Despair never has the last word over hope.  And death is an illusion, intended to confuse us and make us forget who we really are.  Easter people.  Now and forevermore.  Thanks be to God.

Grace and Peace,

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung

 

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the LORD. They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, “Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians”? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’ But Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.’

Exodus 14:10-14

Through prayerful reflection, we have changed our upcoming Annual Conference theme from “One in Ministry to All the World” to “Wilderness.” We do this, not because we do not believe that God’s Holy Spirit is making us one in ministry to all the world, but to acknowledge that we are not currently experiencing the God-given unity that exists through our faith and baptism. The recent General Conference has not left us with a sense of oneness, unity, wholeness and connection. We are not feeling it. We are not witnessing it. It doesn’t mean it isn’t true, but that we are not currently experiencing this “Promised Land,” to which God is leading us. We are nowhere close to our Promised Land; we are together wandering in the wilderness.

To a casual observer, the wilderness is not a good place.  It is wild, and dangerous, and desolate, and uninviting.  God’s people, throughout the ages, have not enjoyed the wilderness.  What was true for the Israelites with Moses, and for Jesus tempted by Satan, is true for us today: the wilderness is frightening and challenging and overwhelming.  It is clear that we are in a wilderness time as a global denomination – threats and challenges and despair abound – but what might we learn from wilderness journeys of old?

First, the wilderness is not the destination.  God never leaves God’s people in the wilderness.  God does not wish for us to wander aimlessly, but our wandering is a means to obtaining the ends God wants for us.  The wilderness is that which lies between where we are today and the Promised Land of tomorrow.  We never head for the wilderness as our final place, but we brave the wilderness to get somewhere better.  Our United Methodist fellowship is in a desolate and painful wilderness place, but this is part of our journey, not our Promised Land.  The better we pass through this time of testing, the better our arrival will be on the other side.

Second, while the wilderness may not be desirable, the wilderness is necessary.  It is sometimes said, “You can’t get there from here.”  Many, many people are feeling that way for our church today – we can never arrive at a place of unity and collaboration and mutuality and rapport because the wilderness we are in is too vast, too great, and too unconquerable.  The dividing chasms that separate us cannot be bridged.  The resources for our thriving are too limited.  The energy to continue is too scarce.  We simply cannot see the deliverance that God has in store for us.  Yet, the testing, strengthening, and perfecting that comes through the wilderness come from no other source or experience.  If we retreat to a place of comfort, safety, and ease (a place with no division, disagreement, or debate) we will not have grown, and we will forever be denied access to a true Promised Land.

Third, the wilderness is full of treasures and beauty.  It is so simple to focus on the threats and dangers of wilderness space and time.  It is dry, arid, uncomfortable, dangerous, and unpleasant.  Who in their right mind wishes to spend one minute more in the wilderness that they absolutely have to?  Through the ages, many have chosen the wilderness.  They have chosen to withdraw from demands and distractions.  They have been pulled to seek something better.  They have reveled in the grand vistas, open spaces, the beauties hidden and revealed, and the time for introspection and humility.  Much learning, much growth, much discernment, and much transformation occur in wilderness spaces.

Fourth, the wilderness is where we all are, together.  Right this minute, it may not feel like much of a gift that we are all wandering in the wilderness together.  Our whole wilderness is defined by the “us/them” divisions about our understanding of Bible, theology, human sexuality, cultural nuance, multiple diversities, sociological complexities that comprise real life.  “Those” people (however you define “those”) are the problem!  We wouldn’t be in the wilderness if not for “them.”  But people are not the problem, people are God’s blessed solution.  We are gifts to one another, no matter how differently we think or feel.  The only way we can make it through the wilderness is together.  Beyond our survival, we will only thrive and prosper in community. 

My great prayer and hope is that we might not reject the wilderness; that we might not flee back to Egypt because it feels safer, more comfortable, and familiar.  Going back, separating, agreeing to disagree is captivity.  Struggling, battling, learning, growing, hurting and healing are the truth of the wilderness.  And the only way we will arrive at the Promised Land is to fight hard, together, and to trust that God is leading us to a better place.  It isn’t easy.  It isn’t safe.  It isn’t fun.  But it is essential and necessary and imperative, and the very best way we can survive the wilderness is together.  God never leaves us, God is with us, and God will guide us.  Thanks be to God.

Grace and Peace,

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung

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

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ 4Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.”

Luke 4:1-4

What do you think of our wilderness time? The Lenten season is a time of reflection and wandering in commemoration of Jesus’ wilderness time. Wilderness time is difficult time, it is a trying time, and it is a challenging time. Wilderness time is a test of faith and endurance and perseverance. Wilderness time can be frightening, exhausting, dispiriting time. But wilderness time is rich, fertile, creative time as well. In the wilderness we see what we are really made of. Our depth and breadth are tested. Our coping skills are challenged. And by the grace of God, we rise above our weaknesses and temptations to emerge stronger and better.

The forty days that Jesus journeyed in the wilderness were a time of preparation, training, and grounding. They were a proof of who Jesus was and what Jesus could do through the power of God’s guidance and spirit. Through this time and experience, Jesus was affirmed that his faith was greater than a desire for power, for control, for creature comforts, or for basic needs. God provides, and when God gives, we lack for nothing of value.

Do we believe this? Do we truly trust that God will provide all that we could need or hope for? Is our faith greater than our fear? Is our trust more solid than our doubts? Do we ever worry that the devil might be powerful enough to lessen our faith or weaken our resolve? Let us be honest, because we are human.

Our United Methodist Church is currently in a wilderness time, a Lenten season. We do not see a clear way forward. There is anxiety. There is animosity. There is frustration and confusion and exhaustion. It would be so easy to just give up – to sit down on a rock in the desert and quit. We are tired and hungry and cranky and unhappy. At such times it may be almost impossible to say, “thank you, Lord!” It may be hard to stand firm in our faith and say to God “I am ready for whatever may come next!” It may stick in our throat to proclaim, “no I am fine, I have all I need.” It is much easier to focus on what we don’t have, what we can’t do, and how we are not content, than it is to humbly say, “not my will be done, but yours, O Lord.”

I do not believe we can fully appreciate what Jesus did in his forty days when we stay comfortable and content in our daily routine. I believe that Lent is a time for some discomfort, for some sacrifice, and for some deep and honest reflection. I encourage us all to pray as often and as hard as we can “thy will be done, O Lord.” I encourage us all to fast – if not from food, then from noise or screens or entertainment or snacks or phones or email or any of a thousand things that distract us and encourage a chattering “monkey-mind” to keep us agitated and unfocused. Give more time to God this Lenten season. When you feel angry, turn to God. When you feel empty, turn to God. When you feel anxious, turn to God. When frightened or discouraged or exhausted, turn to God. Don’t give in; don’t give up. Life can be hard and challenging and even tempting, but God is with you every step of the way.

Most of us cannot even conceive of living “by bread alone.” We mostly enjoy good food, warm clothes, adequate shelter. Our lives are so filled with stuff. Our days are packed with activity. Our inboxes are overflowing with messages and requests and demands and offers. We are connected to devices from sun-up to sundown. We exist in a wilderness of sorts each day, every day, wandering without time or space to rest, to reflect, to empty out, and to prepare. When God offers to fill us, we are not ready – like Martha, we are distracted by many things.

During our Lenten journey, I encourage us all to take seriously God’s gift of Sabbath – time away from everything. Make space – true wilderness space – to let go. Let go of hurt. Let go of control.  Let go of fear. Let go of distrust. Let go of anger. Let go of desire. Let go. Empty yourself. Fast. Prepare. Pray. Breathe. And know that the very Spirit of the living God will provide everything you need and will strengthen you for all that is to come. Thanks be to God.

Grace and Peace,

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung

To all the beautiful Wisconsin people,

Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud,
be gracious to me and answer me!

Psalm 27:7

You are in my heart and in my prayers. 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. This is also made clear by all the heartfelt and faithful leaders who signed the statement of “Sacred Resistance and Call to Action.” What became crystal clear to me at this special 2019 General Conference is how deeply injured we are, and how deeply we stand in need of God’s healing grace.

I am hearing “Bishop, why did you not stand with us?” But I am hearing that from the LGBTQ+ community, and from the supporters of the Traditional Plan, and from supporters of the One Church Plan, and plans for exit, and plans for unity – I am hearing it from everyone. All I can say is that I am standing for my faith in Jesus Christ, my love for The United Methodist Church, and for all my Beloved siblings in and beyond the Wisconsin Annual Conference.

I hear that many of you have had enough, that you are exhausted by the fighting, that you feel the church is no longer your church. This makes me very sad, but I understand you, I affirm you, and I love you. But I must be clear, I will stay and fight. I will stay and fight for the church I believe God wants us to be – one body with many members. I do not believe God is finished with us, and I will dedicate myself to a loving, caring, inclusive, and united church. It may look impossible, but what is impossible for weak, broken people is still possible for our God of love.

To my LGBTQ+ siblings who stand together shouting, “We won’t go,” I stand with you. To my traditional brothers and sisters calling for accountability, I stand with you. To all the moderate and centrist voices calling us to live up to our standard of “open hearts, open minds, open doors,” I stand with you.

To each and every one of you willing to stay in the struggle to become a better church, I stand with you. I am a bishop for ALL God’s people – I will take a stand, but I will not take a side. If all means all, it means ALL.

I have said before and will say again, we are a wounded church, a broken church, a divided church. But I still have hope, because I do not worship the denomination; I worship God. I do not love the institution, I love the church; I love you, beautiful people. I do not believe our current condition is God’s will for The United Methodist Church. I believe we can be better, but not if we give up.

Again, to those who have had enough, I am so, so sorry. You may not feel it, but you are loved. You are valued. You are blessed children of God, and I cannot emphasize enough how disappointed I am that you have been made to feel unwelcome. This is wrong. Wisconsin is committed to expand the circle of leadership -- both lay and clergy -- with full inclusion. I have been serving to extend the healthy and radical inclusion with LGBTQ+ individuals and community. I will work continually to eliminate the barriers of discrimination in race, gender, culture, and human sexuality for the healthy leadership of God’s people called to ministry.

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