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

“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