They’re Just Words – Or Are They?

They’re Just Words – Or Are They?

letters

By Gary E. Mueller

Bishop of the Arkansas Annual Conference

It seems that almost every United Methodist meeting I attend these days includes the following words and phrases: liminal, asynchronous, actionable, emotional intelligence, nimble, new normal, transparent, and adaptive. In fact, I even use them myself. And while they can be helpful in describing the world in which the church finds itself, I am increasingly convinced we also need to employ the language of faith. The reason is simple. How we talk about something goes a long way in determining what we actually do about it.  

I believe it is time for those who love Jesus as Savior and Lord, those of us who seek to live as his disciples, and those of us who long for God’s will to be just as real on earth as it already is in heaven to inject the language of faith into our lives far more intentionally. I also understand this is a challenge for many of us because we tend to shy away from using faith language, often for very appropriate reasons.   

But if we don’t use the language of faith, we will soon discover our lives being shaped primarily by things other than faith. That’s because faith impacts every single part of our lives all day long. How often we talk about Jesus as Lord and Savior, mention the Kingdom of God, speak about the fullness of grace, or share our commitment to growing deeper in discipleship and living out that discipleship speaks volumes. Quite simply, if these things are an important part of our lives, they should be expressed in the words we use.

There’s one place, in particular, I am convinced using the language of faith will make a significant difference: our quest for racial justice.

Last year, we introduced the phrase, “Dismantling Racism – Building Reconciliation” to describe our work in addressing racism. I was convinced it was clear, to the point, and indicated the work ahead of us. What is more, it focused on more than merely eradicating something horrible. It also talked about replacing it with something good. 

But along the way, I realized some people aren’t interested in addressing racism because they don’t think it’s an issue, at least their issue, or they simply don’t know what to do. As I struggled to deal with this reality, I realized something was missing that is absolutely essential if we are truly serious about addressing racial justice: our Christian faith. So in recent months, I have started talking about our work in a new way, “Dismantling the Sin of Racism – Building God’s Reconciliation.” These additional words that talk about sin and God’s reconciliation dramatically change how we understand what we are facing and give a clearer direction about our ultimate goal. Racism is a sin and the Christian faith offers a way to address that sin. True reconciliation is rooted in Jesus’ ultimate reconciliation through the cross. It is my hope and prayer that being intentional about using our faith vocabulary will help us address racism far more quickly and powerfully than we otherwise would. 

We always walk a fine line as Jesus’ disciples when it comes to employing the language of faith. We never want to be arrogant and we certainly don’t want to act disrespectfully towards others. But we need to include the language of faith in the totality of our lives because we live most fully into our true identity when we acknowledge Whose we are and who we are. That’s why the words we choose every day are so important. Perhaps now more than ever. May we choose words that remind us and others of what we believe about life – both now and for eternity to come. 

Do We Really Need a Savior?

Do We Really Need a Savior?

cross on a hill

By Gary E. Mueller

Bishop of the Arkansas Annual Conference

Tomorrow is Good Friday.

As I’ve been thinking about the event that exists at the very heart of our identity as Christians, I’ve found my mind drifting to the current state of the Body of Christ. There’s no way to gently put it, so I’ll be blunt. I am deeply troubled, my heart is breaking and my soul is distressed. The reason is simple. I don’t see much evidence that we really think we need a Savior.

Rather, I see something quite distressing. We have become a church that is concerned with almost everything but Jesus. If you have any doubt, look at how we spend our time and energy. We are so shaped by the political and ideological wars going on around us that we see each other primarily through the lens of secular culture, instead of as brothers and sisters in Christ. We are so much part of a polarized world that we accept as normal the demonization of others with whom we disagree, instead of seeing them through our common relationship with Jesus Christ. We have become so self-centered that we are convinced the church’s primary role is to cater to our wishes and make us comfortable, instead of seeking to carry out the will of God. We fight so much about whether the people we want to help are worthy of our help that we become self-righteous, instead of taking seriously Jesus’ words in Matthew 25. We are so hell-bent on arguing whether we should have to wear masks that we spend much of our time engaging in internal combat, instead of spending our time reaching out to people so they can get to know Jesus as their personal Savior and invite him to be Lord of their lives.

To put it simply, we have lost our passion for Jesus’ passion on the cross. Of course, I’m realistic enough to understand that this statement will probably be greeted with a metaphorical shrug of the shoulders. But the fact of the matter is that we do need a Savior. Whether we think we do or not. And we need one right now.

But I have hope even though things seem bleak. Indeed, more hope than I can begin to describe. That’s because there are signs all around that the Holy Spirit is at work right now stirring us up so we will be laser-focused on Jesus who died for us so that we will experience the fullness of his unconditional, invitational and transformational love. Not just so we can experience forgiveness, healing, joy and hope. But so that we can be part of Jesus’ mission of unleashing grace that transforms lives, communities and the world.

Indeed, tomorrow is Good Friday. It will be a somber day filled with mystery that cannot be explained and power that changes everything. I pray that this Good Friday will help us realize – perhaps for the first time, or perhaps for the first time in a long time – just how much we need a Savior named Jesus.

Looking Back and Looking Ahead

Looking Back and Looking Ahead

sign

By Gary E. Mueller

Bishop of the Arkansas Annual Conference

The United Methodist Church has been filled with people who have significant disagreements for decades about how to involve LGBTQIA+ individuals in the life of the church. The first time the denomination addressed the matter was in The 1972 Book of Discipline. Every General Conference since has held contentious debates concerning what action to take.

Not surprisingly, matters have become more polarized in recent years. People on both sides of the issue hoped that a definitive decision would be made at the 2016 General Conference. It wasn’t. Instead, the delegates narrowly voted to ask the Council of Bishops to lead. The Council chose to do so by appointing the Commission on the Way Forward. The Commission faithfully carried out its work and the Council endorsed the One Church Plan but also forwarded the Traditional Plan and Connectional Conference Plan to the 2019 called General Conference. Most people anticipated, or at least hoped, that this special session would settle the matter once and for all. The General Conference adopted the Traditional Plan that enhanced and clarified the church’s existing stance.

Not surprisingly, this action did not settle the matter. The outcome was unacceptable to a portion of the denomination, and organizations were formed and plans made to overturn the changes. At the same time, the Wesleyan Covenant Association began formulating plans for a new Methodist expression that would be more traditional in makeup.

The denomination seemed stymied. That’s why the late Bishop John Yambasu began a series of conversations during the summer of 2019 with leaders of more traditional and progressive groups within the church. In the fall of that year, a diverse group was formed from this group and an internationally acclaimed mediator, Kenneth Feinberg, facilitated a process that resulted in the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation that was released in January 2020. It provided a means for Annual Conferences and congregations to join a new Methodist expression, committed significant United Methodist financial resources to address racism, and offered financial support for the starting of new Methodist denominations. While not formally a part of the legislation, the assumption was that the post-separation United Methodist Church would be centrist and progressive in its theology and practice.

Legislation to implement the proposal was submitted and, at the time, many assumed that this was the pathway the United Methodist Church delegates would embrace at the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis.

Then COVID-19 struck and an unexpected pause ensued. The 2020 General Conference was postponed. The United States experienced a spring and summer of killings of Black citizens by police. The pandemic spread, shuttering normal life and inflicting hardship on billions of people globally.

Attention shifted from human sexuality to COVID, racism and colonialism. Churches were forced to adapt to a virtual world of worship, discipling, fellowship and mission. And in the process, something unexpected happened. Many United Methodists discovered a new appreciation for connectionalism and forged deeper relationships with those with whom they disagreed about a variety of issues, including exactly how the church should include LGBTQIA+ persons. During this period a number of new ideas were floated as alternatives or enhancements to the Protocol: The Christmas Covenant, a proposal from the Alaska General Conference Delegation, and the Overlapping Regional Conference Plan to name a few. Just a couple of days ago, the Global Methodist Church formally announced that it will be a new expression of Methodism in the coming years.

The Commission on the General Conference announced on February 25 that the General Conference has been postponed and rescheduled for August 29 – September 6, 2022. At the same time, the Council of Bishops announced that a called session of General Conference will be held virtually on May 8, 2021, to address 12 amendments to the Book of Discipline that will enable the denomination to carry out some basic responsibilities in the midst of the COVID pandemic and other future possible disruptions. The actual vote will be taken by delegates using paper ballots to ensure that all persons can participate equally in a fair way that allows their voices to be heard. The results of the vote will be announced on July 13, 2021.

So where does all of this leave you?

Some of you are frustrated by yet another delay of General Conference because things have been unsettled for too long and you are ready to get it done and just move on. I understand this and respect your feelings. In fact, I feel that way myself some days.

However, I am seeing increasing numbers of signs that God is at work in the midst of this unexpectedly prolonged pause giving the people called Methodists around the world a new vision of what it means to be a spiritually revived and missionally alive global United Methodist church. In other words, God is doing something in God’s own time, which means I need to be patient enough to wait for it because God’s timing is always better than my timing.

Everything has been turned upside down in the world, in your life and even in your church during the past year. We now seem to be turning the corner and will soon begin to find our way to the new normal that awaits us. Much will be the same because we are still called to share Jesus’ love, help people accept him as Lord and Savior, walk with them as they grow in discipleship, and equip and send them to bring God’s transformation to lives, communities and the world. However, we will have to find new ways to carry out this Gospel work.

Our work is quite simple. Pray for our world and beloved church. Keep the main thing the main thing by focusing on Jesus and his mission. Listen carefully to the voice of God about new possibilities for our denomination. And do everything with joy, passion and hope because God is still God, Jesus is still Lord and the Holy Spirit is still at work.

Statement from Bishop Mueller on Postponed General Conference

Statement from Bishop Mueller on Postponed General Conference

February 26, 2021

Yesterday, United Methodists across the global connection learned that the postponed General Conference 2020 had, once again, been postponed to Aug. 29 – Sept. 6, 2022, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. You can read the Council of Bishops’ press release on their website.

What this means for our church is that 2021 will not be focused on solving our deeply held differences in the church, but instead it will focus on continuing the work that we already have in place and preparing for the work that must be done when we meet again in 2022.

The Commission on the General Conference made the decision in a Feb. 20 meeting that holding a meeting of our global body in 2021 would not be feasible due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the technological barriers that would prevent a virtual meeting from taking place.

Instead, there will be a called virtual special session on May 8, 2021, to handle a limited number of legislative pieces, enabling us to make changes to the Book of Discipline so that we can continue to carry out ministry in 2021 and 2022. It will be a very brief session to establish a quorum to suspend the rules and allow us to vote on 12 pieces of legislation through a paper mail-in ballot system. You can read about those 12 legislative pieces here. The ballots will be mailed to delegates following the Special Session, and the results of the ballots will be released on July 13, 2021.

The Protocol of Grace and Reconciliation Through Separation, as well as other plans that have been submitted, will not be considered until our 2022 meeting. The budget will also not be considered until the postponed General Conference gathering. As well the 2016 Book of Discipline as amended will remain in full effect through our next General Conference gathering.

More information on all of these moving pieces will be forthcoming.

In this time of waiting, I am aware that some of you are anxious about settling the church’s future. That’s why I urge you to remember three things while we wait for the 2022 General Conference.

First, be graceful to each other, as you have done so well up to this point.

Second, continue to keep the main thing the main thing, which is creating vital congregations that make disciples of Jesus Christ, who make disciples equipped and sent to transform lives, communities and the world.

And finally, during this time, we need to be open and aware of how God is at work in our midst. Maybe God has plans for us and our church that will be revealed to us in the coming months. 

I am proud of the work you have done in 2020, and continue to look forward to the work we will accomplish in 2021, 2022 and beyond. We all should remain in prayer that the work of God’s church will manifest in powerful ways.

Grace and peace,

Gary E. Mueller
Bishop

Are You Ready To Be Ashed?

Are You Ready To Be Ashed?

ash wednesday

By Gary E. Mueller

Bishop of the Arkansas Annual Conference

It will be Ash Wednesday in just a few days. Like seemingly everything else these days, it will be different. You may participate through an online service or in a drive-through experience or by self-imposing ashes as you gather with others.

Many people – and you may be one of them – aren’t convinced they’re ready for a somber and deeply reflective Ash Wednesday Service, let alone the entire season of Lent. Given what’s going on in the world, they’re ready to jump straight to Easter and its message of hope that arises out of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.  

But inconvenient as Ash Wednesday is right now, we still need to deal with it head-on – by getting absolutely real with God, others, and ourselves about sin. This may come as a shock since we don’t talk much about sin anymore. In fact, the word seems to have disappeared from our faith vocabulary. But the Christian faith has a tradition dating back to our Jewish forebears of the necessity of dealing with it. 

Dealing with sin is serious business, and involves a great deal of vulnerability and willingness to wade into the muck and messiness of our own sinful actions. It begins with being convicted by the truth that what we’ve done harms God and others. It moves on to confession and an articulation of telling the truth about ourselves, expressing deep regret, and vowing to make things right. It mandates repenting, which literally means turning around and heading in a new direction, with our words, attitudes, and actions. It necessitates, as much as possible, making things right with others so that God’s justice becomes real. It leads to being forgiven. And eventually – but not always or easily – it can bring about reconciliation. 

Sin, however, is not merely a personal matter. It is also corporate and has infected the very fabric of our nation – from how we treat each other to how we treat the most vulnerable. We need the Holy Spirit to help us deal with the reality of this kind of sin. There needs to be far less selfishness, anger, opportunism, hatred and demonizing, and a great deal more conviction, confession, repentance, making-right and transformation. It probably will be resisted. It will be painful. And it will involve us taking the risk of naming this sin, often in concrete ways. But it is how God transforms human beings from the inside out. And that should be something we always seek for ourselves and every other person.

It’s important to remember something about sin, whether it’s our own or corporate. Sin is never the last word. This means we don’t deal with sin on Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent in a vacuum, uncertain what the outcome will be. We do it knowing that Jesus’ resurrection is far more powerful than the reality of sin. Ultimately, and somewhat paradoxically, this means dealing with sin – individually and corporately – can actually be a gift from God.

So, how about it – are you ready to be ashed?