Background Noise

Background Noise

tv

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

By Gary E. Mueller

Bishop of the Arkansas Annual Conference

I have this thing about TVs. And truth be told, I’ve had it for as long as I can remember. I became aware of it when we got our first color TV (a Curtis Mathes) the day before the very first Super Bowl more than 50 years ago. It manifested itself again when I bought one of the first stereo televisions on the market (never mind that the right speaker never quite worked right). It ratcheted up when I purchased my very first HD TV (with accompanying surround sound speakers set up all over the den), and watched my first HD telecast – a NASCAR race replay that had me transfixed for an hour because of the clarity of the picture and real-life sound. I think, however, it recently reached its zenith (although there have been many more mountaintop experiences over the years) when my new OLED TV with an ATMOS sound system arrived that provides a clearer picture and more precise sound than my old eyes and ears can appreciate. 

I know you’re probably thinking there’s nothing remotely spiritual about any of this – especially for a bishop! And I agree. But let me be absolutely clear for the record. There’s no way I’m going back when it comes to sight and sound!

It should not be surprising, however, that God can take my unrepentant heart and use it to teach me what God knows I need to learn. This is what happened last Saturday evening as the Hogs showed the Texas Longhorns how the game of football is played. I was watching (and trying to get my children who attended Texas to respond to my texts) when I realized that there was so much background crowd noise that I hardly could hear the announcers describe the action on the field. Not surprisingly, I did what I thought was the most rational and reasonable thing to do. I turned up the volume. And I kept turning it up until it became a point of deep theological discussion with Karen, and I did the thing I probably should have done in the beginning – I turned up my hearing aid volume as high as it would go.

But guess what? I could not hear the announcers any more clearly. Sure, everything was louder. But nothing was any clearer.

In that moment, God struck. I realized this is exactly what happens all too often in my life. There is so much background noise from social media, 24-hour news cycles, ideological diatribes, music, conversation that doesn’t have much substance, my failed attempts to be in control of my life, and my own negative self-talk, that I simply don’t hear when God is speaking to me. That’s a crazy way to live. And it’s time to change. So please pray for me, that I will listen to God in a way that I may truly hear. And if by chance you find yourself in the same kind of struggle, know that I will pray for you.

Invite God To Change Our Conversations

Invite God To Change Our Conversations

conversation

Photo by Korney Violin on Unsplash

By Gary E. Mueller

Bishop of the Arkansas Annual Conference

It seems to me that we Christians are engaging in more and more conversations about the future that leave us feeling stuck, frustrated and hopeless. The result? All too often we end up cynical at best or polarized at worst. Which is exactly why it’s time to do something we should have been doing all along – invite God to change our conversations.  

When we think that the only way we can solve “the problem” in our beloved United Methodist Church is to adopt some plan at General Conference, we descend into chaos and despair. But when we invite God to change our conversation about our church, then we begin to ask a new question that can change the trajectory of our future, “What does the General Conference have to do to ensure there are as many faithful and vital congregations as possible making disciples of Jesus Christ?”

When we are convinced that the United Methodist Church is going to continue to decline, we give up and just go through the motions. But when we invite God to change our conversation and focus on how prayer changes things, then we begin fervently praying for a Great Awakening that always brings Jesus into the lives of people both in the church and the mission field all around us.

When we think we’re always going to struggle to reach younger people, we’re embracing a self-fulfilling prophecy that ensures we are always going to fail to reach younger people. But when we invite God to change our conversation so that we are talking about how God is giving us the gifts we need to reach young people, then we are propelled into the lives of those who are longing for the opportunity to grow in deeper discipleship.

When we invite God to change our conversations, we change the way we look at things. When we change the way we look at things, we change the conversations we have. And when we change our conversations, we experience God doing the most amazing things in our lives and the lives of those around us!

A Word Audit

A Word Audit

words

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

By Gary E. Mueller

Bishop of the Arkansas Annual Conference

When I find free moments to reflect on my life and ministry, I often think about the words I use to describe what I’m experiencing. If the words are positive, uplifting and energetic, I know I feel good about what’s going on. If they are negative, it’s equally obvious. And if they are snarky (and, yes, that’s a theologically appropriate term), I know there’s something going on in me I need to figure out.

Quite frankly – and it’s embarrassing to admit this – I don’t like the negative words I’ve been choosing recently to describe the contentiousness that occurred at this year’s Annual Conference, congregations complaining about “those people in Little Rock,” pastors expressing an entitlement attitude about their appointments, or all the talk about the future disintegration of the denomination. In fact, I deeply despise the fact that I have been mired in a sea of negative words when I talk about our church, people and future.

It’s very different, however, when I think about the words I’ve been using to talk about the “Body of Christ.” Suddenly, it’s like I’m talking about something that’s the polar opposite of what I so often experience in the “church.” And my vocabulary reflects it as I invoke positive words that describe God-nods, Holy Spirit breakthroughs, reconciled relationships, the bright light of Christ shining, and the making of disciples of Jesus Christ, who make disciples equipped and sent to transform lives, communities and the world. 

So why do I speak negatively about the “church” and positively about the “Body of Christ”?

I think it has everything to do with whether we are acting like the church belongs to us or whether it belongs to Jesus. I instantly get negative about the “church” when we treat it like a human institution that we believe we’re in charge of because, whenever that happens, we get what we’ve got – something far more reflective of the worst of humanity instead of the best of Christ. I speak positively about the “Body of Christ” when we are able to step back from our urge to control and are instead controlled far more by Jesus’ heart and mind.

Of course, it’s one thing for me to understand why I do what I do. It’s quite another for me to do something about it. That’s why I’m glad God has stepped in and convicted me in a way that will keep me from throwing up my arms at the overwhelming impossibility of the task and just walking away.  

And because God has stepped in, here is what I intend to do. 

I will divest myself of the notion that I can fix the “church” because I somehow live under the delusion that I am in charge. Rather, my vocation will be to experience the “church” more and more as the “Body of Christ” in which I experience Jesus as our literal and spiritual head who directs our life together. And while I don’t know what the future of our beloved United Methodist Church is going to be, I do know that this way of being “church” offers a wonderful opportunity to be part of a group of people who live in true love, joy, justice, new life, resurrection, healing and hope.

And that’s more than enough for me.

The Gift of an Unexpected Pause

The Gift of an Unexpected Pause

stop

Photo by Kai Pilger on Unsplash

By Gary E. Mueller

Bishop of the Arkansas Annual Conference

There’s “THE QUESTION” that overshadows everything in the Arkansas Conference, “What is the future of the United Methodist Church going to be – and when is it finally going to be decided?” The fact that we cannot answer it – and anyone who tells you otherwise is just wrong – has led to uncertainty, anxiety, frustration, anger and impatience.

Our current experience shares much in common with the people of Israel who were delivered from oppression in Egypt and then spent the next 40 years wandering in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land.

Their journey began after a dramatic deliverance from Egypt, and God’s promise that they would end up in a land flowing with milk and honey. Along the way, God did amazing things. And how did the people respond? Sometimes faithfully. But often they were impatient and impertinent, grumbled about how much better life was back in Egypt, threatened to rebel against Moses, and built a golden calf to worship.

Our journey began nearly 50 years ago as a disagreement over theology, especially pertaining to matters of human sexuality, and morphed into a painful breach as we have sought our own promised land. Not a place, but the promise of a solution that will finally “fix” the deep division in our denomination either by seeking to have certain people leave the United Methodist Church or by finding a way to exit the United Methodist Church. And as this has not been difficult enough, we are turning on each other as if we refuse to believe that we actually are sisters and brothers in Christ.

I understand why so many of you have reached the point you have – just ready for something to happen so it is finally all over. But I wonder if our impatience, anger and desire to settle things as quickly as possible are signs that we do not trust God, and so God is keeping us wandering until we are formed into a more faithful people. Just like God kept the people of Israel wandering until they were formed into a more faithful people.

We have a very important decision to make.

Are we going to be like the people of Israel who threatened to overthrow Moses, constructed idols and grumbled about returning to Egypt because we do not think things are going the way they should? Or are we going to trust that God is leading us on this journey designed to take us to the future God dreams for us?

I choose to see this period of time leading up to General Conference – and whatever it decides – as the gift of an unexpected pause during which God can form us into a more faithful church as we engage in three holy ventures that are at the heart of the Christian faith, the Wesleyan movement and the United Methodist Church.

And I pray that you do, too.

First, use the gift of this unexpected pause to flip-flop how you look at things. Instead of letting denominational issues – as important as they are – determine the health and vitality of local churches, let’s let local churches, where so many amazing things are happening, make the denomination more alive and faithful.

Second, embrace this time as a wonderful opportunity to double down on the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ, who make disciples equipped and sent to transform lives, communities and the world.

Third, use these months to fall head-over-heels, passionate and crazy in love with Jesus. God has done something in Jesus that is unique and essential. He gives you what you absolutely need and cannot get in any other way by reconciling you with God, with others and with yourself through his death on the cross.

I believe Jesus is at the heart of everything. As imperfect as I am, I believe it. As many times as I have turned away from him, I believe it. As educated as I am, I believe it. And on this – the 40th anniversary of my ordination as an elder – I believe it. In fact, I believe it so much that if I could have one do-over in my ministry, it would be to make it more about Jesus.

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.