My mind, my heart, my soul and spirit are in a whirl. So much is going on. The inauguration, the civil unrest and divisions in our country and our church, the global pandemic and the continued impact on our communities throughout Wisconsin, the feelings of isolation, separation, frustration, and despair. The ways people are unhappy, conflicted, and distressed. At times it feels all too much. How will we come through it all?
Martin Luther King, Jr. remembrance was good for me. In the midst of all the turmoil, this day and time for celebrating Dr. King’s legacy was a true gift. Message after message focused on the man and his vision, the figure and the dedication, the crusader and the impact on history. The attention on who Martin Luther King, Jr. was, makes me ask a question that I share with all of you: who am I?
This is a form of koan – a multi-layered, simple yet complex, question leading to deep introspection and reflection – for me. It is too easy to dismiss such a question or to say it is irrelevant, but I am thinking that it may be one of the most important questions at this moment in time. “Who I am” includes my deepest beliefs and yearnings, my values and sense of ethics and morality, my relationships, my dreams, my actions, my priorities, my treatment of others, my thoughts and words. “Who I am” is my fundamental understanding of my identity and purpose. It is no small question.
There is an added dimension to this question for members of the body of Christ. If we are truly “in Christ” and Christ is fully “in us,” then the question gets both easier and harder. The easy part is that “I am a Christian.” The hard part is truly discerning and understanding what this means. We spend way too much time judging who else is acceptable or not, and too little time reflecting on our own adequacies. It is God’s grace that makes us acceptable; nothing else. We may say “yes” or “no” to God’s grace, but beyond that our place in the body of Christ is God’s doing, not ours. As long as we fully understand that God’s acceptance of us does not make us better than others, we live fully in that grace. When we waste our God-granted blessing to judge and curse others we prove that we don’t understand.
Richard Rohr, in his wonderful book Falling Upward, says, “Like any true mirror, the gate of God receives us exactly as we are, without judgment or distortion, subtraction or addition. Such perfect receiving is what transforms us.” This echoes John Wesley’s lifelong exploration and discovery of God’s grace, providing the motivation for his constant question, “And how is it with your soul?” We often gloss over Wesley’s meaning in this phrased question, answering “How are you doing?” rather than how it is with our soul. Wesley’s probing question was also a koan of sorts, and its basis was accountability: how well are you living God’s grace with integrity? How well are you sowing, harvesting, and spreading the fruit of the Spirit? How well are you using your spiritual gifts to spread scriptural holiness wherever you walk? How do you offer Christ to others through your words, actions, and intentions? Where have you consciously and correctly refrained from doing harm? Where have you done well as a faithful witness to Christ’s love and God’s grace?
The beauty of this depth of engagement is elegant and sublime: if Christians will commit to doing all the good they can in all the ways they can, there will be no time left over to do harm.
We may answer the question “Who am I?” by stating what we do for a living, what sports team we support, what political party we join, what we think about a key issue – and all of these are pieces in our puzzle – but the foundation of our identity in God is Jesus Christ. We are members of the body of Christ. We are interconnected fibers and sinews of the incarnate Christ in the world.
But today more than ever it is important that we not confuse Christian kindness, love, and grace with being nice or weak. A strong Christian witness is essential in our day. As the incarnation of Christ, we must say no to violence, no to destruction, no to selfishness, no to oppression. As witnesses to God’s grace, we must fight for peace, justice, equity, healing, and redemption. I close with an invitation to use the Prayer of St. Francis as a devotional focus for these troubled days of 2021. There is great wisdom and great potential in these words. I pray you make them your own:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung has served as resident bishop of the Wisconsin Annual Conference since September of 2012. Prior to leading the Wisconsin Conference UMC, Bishop Jung served eight years as bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference (Chicago area).