xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Mid-Week Message: December 2008

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Lights On!

December 31, 2008
Dear St. Paul’s Family,
Allow me to give you a glimpse into one of the quirky aspects of my childhood.  
I grew up with what my parents claimed was a traditionally Filipino observance of the New Year. “Every light must be on,” they said.  So with minutes before midnight on December 31, my brothers and I would race around the house, frantically turning on every light we could find – without exception.  The chandelier, ceiling fan lights, Disney nightlight, aquarium hood, oven light, outdoor spotlight, and even the refrigerator and microwave doors gave way to our frantic, anti-environmental rampage. Then, with seconds before the big moment, my mom would shove coins into our pockets and dollar bills into our hands.  At the precise instant that the big apple on the television hit the Times Square crowd, we would leap as high as we could into the air.  It was an annual occasion:  New Year’s Eve, courtesy of Dick Clark and the deVega’s.  
I wonder in retrospect how many things my parents got us to do by convincing us that it was “Filipino tradition.”  I have entertained the notion that at 12:01 they winked at each other with a knowing smirk: “Looks like we got them again. Next year let’s see if they’ll sing
Auld Lang Syne with Spam in their mouths.”
They claimed that having money in your hands and pockets was a sign of prosperity for the year to come.  Jumping high into the air would bring the promise of growth and health.  And the lights?  It was the symbol of joy and peace vanquishing the darkness from you and your family for the next year.
Whether or not this is a cultural tradition, I still find the practice endearing, partly because the image of light has solid biblical footing.  After all, the gospel writers are captivated by it this time of year.  In the wake of a baby born under the gaze of angelic star light, we are reminded:
‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’
“And Jesus was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”

“In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
This Sunday is Epiphany Sunday, in which we usher in the new year by welcoming the new light of Christ into our lives.  Just as the magi were led to Christ by following a star, we are called to follow the light of Jesus into the days and months to come.  There is no guarantee, of course, that 2009 will be any better or any worse than the year we leave behind, just as I can’t prove that pocketed coins and mid-air leaps will bring prosperity and health. But there is this biblical assurance:

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
(Isaiah 60:1)

May we remember that whatever we face in the coming year, we will be accompanied by the guiding, ever-present, and illuminating light of Christ.  
Happy New Year!

The Rev. Magrey R. deVega
St. Paul's United Methodist Church
531 W. Main St.
Cherokee, IA  51012
Ph:  712-225-3955

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas!

It was a time like this,
War & tumult of war,
a horror in the air.
Hungry yawned the abyss-
and yet there came the star
and the child most wonderfully there.

It was time like this
of fear & lust for power,
license & greed and blight-
and yet the Prince of bliss
came into the darkest hour
in quiet & silent light.

And in a time like this
how celebrate his birth
when all things fall apart?
Ah! Wonderful it is
with no room on the earth
the stable is our heart.

“Into The Darkest Hour”
by Madeleine L’Engle

May you and yours experience the light of Christ, born anew in your hearts.  

Merry Christmas!


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Longest Night

December 16, 2008

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

Each year, December 21 marks the winter solstice, in which our northern hemisphere is tilted furthest away from the sun.  Winter will officially begin with the longest period of nighttime all year.  From then, our daylight will gradually lengthen, which is profoundly good news for a certain Florida transplant still getting adjusted to sunrises at 7:47am and sunsets at 4:49pm!

Churches around the country will observe this longest night with an invitation to gather and name the dark sadness and shadowy pain of their own lives.  For many people, this Christmas will not be a season of festive joy and holiday cheer, but of profound loss and grief.  You may be among them.

•    This may be the first Christmas you will observe without that special loved one around.
•    You may be facing certain financial hardship during these painful economic times.
•    You may have a haunting anxiety over health concerns from a rough year of diagnoses.  
•    You may be feeling the strains of broken relationships, broken promises, or broken dreams.  

Your nights are long, indeed.

I find it interesting that in the daily calendar of the saints, December 21 is designated as the feast day for St. Thomas.  Yes, that Thomas, the one who doubted.  Of all the characters in the gospel, we would wonder, “Why this one?”  Why not Zechariah or Elizabeth, or Mary or Joseph?  How about even the innkeeper who fluffed up the hay in the manger?

But Thomas?  The one who wallowed in disbelief in the midst of his pain?  The one who found himself grieving in the wake of Jesus’ death?  The one who chose to find comfort among the trusted company of friends?  

Come to think of it, maybe Thomas is the perfect saint for the longest night.

It’s interesting.  When Jesus finally convinced Thomas that he could trust and believe the good news of his resurrection, he was careful in his method.  He did not wage an intellectual debate with Thomas, to convince his mind that dead things could come back to life.  He did not punish Thomas for his disbelief, in order to condition his spirit into believing the unbelievable.

Instead, Jesus’ proof was in his blood-stained hands and in his pierced side.  In effect, he said to Thomas, “Look.  You wanted to believe in a God who could avoid death and suffering.  I’m showing you a God who identifies with you in suffering and can lead you through it.  These pierced hands and wounded feet are evidence that this God whom you worship can connect with you in your deepest pain and lead you to a new and living hope.”

So now, consider your Christmas in light of this news.  

•    If you question the presence of God in the midst of your suffering, consider a God who chose not to dwell in the realms of the ethereal, but to touch the world in the form of the earthly and a become a human to identify with our weakness.

•    If you question a God who might allow bad things to happen to good people, consider instead this God who was voluntarily subjected to the temptations and evil forces in this world and gave us a human example in Jesus to conquer violence with forgiveness, hatred with love, temptation with patience, and fear with courage.

•    If you question a God who seems too distant to be believed, or sing carols that seem too plastic to be personal, or hear a gospel that is too difficult to be received,  then consider a God who sees your suffering, your doubt, and your pain and chooses to draw near to you, as your constant companion and lifelong friend.

Your Immanuel, your God With You.

Praying Light for Your Longest Night,


The Rev. Magrey R. deVega
St. Paul's United Methodist Church
531 W. Main St.
Cherokee, IA  51012
Ph:  712-225-3955

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Unplug, Rewire, Get Real

December 10, 2008

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

Then the angel said to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid; I am bringing you good news by e-mail and text message.  You can visit his Facebook page and follow him with Twitter.  Be sure to check out his new website, and download his iPhone App….

Neuroscientist Gary Small has studied the effects that this vast array of digital technologies has had on the human brain.  With every moment spent on the internet, e-mail, smart phones, PDA’s, television, and the like, our brains are literally being rewired, through complex biochemical and neural reactions.  

There have been several benefits, of course.  Generally speaking, hand-eye coordination has improved, as well as our ability to multi-task.  But it has also had harmful effects.  Changes in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – the part of our brain responsible for decision making – make us less able to focus on one task at a time, diminish our short-term memory, and produce a state of “continuous partial attention,” in which we find it more difficult to spend a prolonged time in patient, thoughtful contemplation.

Despite our new abilities to communicate efficiently with more people at a time, our rewired brains also make it harder for us to deeply and intimately
connect with people one on one.  We become unable to recognize subtle meaning in a person’s facial expressions, and be fully present with them in conversation.  We lose the “personal touch.”

And most disturbing of all, Dr. Small has discovered that our hippocampus – the part of our brain that, among other things, determines feelings of self-esteem and self-worth – is gradually
shrinking.  This explains what many describe as “brain strain” or “digital fog” after spending long hours with their digital devices.  We feel irritable, lonely, tired, and of general low self-worth.   

Now pardon the utter irony in the fact that I discovered Dr. Small’s findings while perusing the web, in an article from the latest issue of
Scientific American Mind  (“Meet Your iBrain:  How the Technologies That Have Become Part of Our Daily Lives are Changing the Way We Think.”)  And excuse the fact that I’m sharing this with you through yet another e-mail that you have to read lest it clutter up your inbox.  

I offer this caution to myself as much as to anyone else.  As a 35-year old Gen-Xer among the first generation to grow up  in the digital culture, I am as big a techie as the next person, with my laptop computer, wi-fi access, iPod, smart phone, and cable television.

But I think this all points to another way to prepare for and appreciate what God did through Jesus Christ.  When God chose to offer an ultimate revelation to humanity, God did not choose another written edict, or another cryptic message hidden in creation for us to decipher.  God chose a personal, one-on-one encounter, spending time with us, experiencing life as one of us, the Creator becoming creation.  

God chose the Incarnation, and we called him, “God With Us.”  

Maybe there’s a lesson here for all of us brain-strained, digitally-fogged creatures.  About the importance of being present and personal with each other, just as God did for us.  

  • It might mean only checking e-mail a few times a day.  Turn off the computer after 8:00 or 9:00 at night.  Set aside your PDA or smart phone.  Remember, you’re not that important.  

  • Remember that family dinner table?  Put it to good use again, and remind your kids what it means to interact with someone, face to face.

  • The next time you think about sending an e-mail, trying giving that person a call.  If possible, pay them a personal visit and look them in the eye.  Or try actually handwriting a note, with your own hand, in an envelope stamped with your own spit (do they even make licking stamps anymore?).

  • Read an actual book that you hold with your hands.  Or a newspaper that you peruse with your own fingers.  Given the awful news about the Tribune Co. declaring bankruptcy, it would be good to remember the benefits of print media.

And that dusty book of chapters and verses sitting unused in your house?  Open it up.  Reading the written Word is the best way to get to know the Word Made Flesh.  One on one, face to face.  Spend some time, distraction-free, focusing only on this God who went great lengths to draw near to you.  It’s time to return the favor.

Together, let’s prepare the way.


The Rev. Magrey R. deVega
St. Paul's United Methodist Church
531 W. Main St.
Cherokee, IA  51012
Ph:  712-225-3955

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

What Does God Want for Christmas?

December 2, 2008

Dear St. Paul’s Family,
Is God on your Christmas list?
That’s the question that will be guiding us throughout this Advent season.  Last week we discovered that high on God’s wish list is the gift of our attention, gift-wrapped in “flashing blue and red lights,” urging us to keep alert.  This week our focus turns to Mark’s gospel, whose opening lines call us to give God the gift of our obedience.
One way to see the story of Jesus’ birth is through the eyes of a long string of obedient people.  Consider the alternatives:  what would have happened if these people had not been so willing?  
·     If Mary had said, “I’m sorry.  Too much pressure.  Go find another girl.”
·     If Joseph had said, “Nope.  No way.  Too risky.”
·     If the shepherds had said, “Us?  In the presence of a king?  You’ve got to be kidding.”
·     If the magi had said, “Herod must hear about this at once.”
·     And, in this week’s passage, what if John the Baptist had said, “You want me to eat what?  And wear what?”
To set the tone for this enduring sequence of obedience, Mark’s narrative opens his new story with an old reminder from the prophet Isaiah:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

The word “straight” is Mark’s favorite word. The Greek word occurs seventeen times throughout his gospel, translated in different ways.  It most often occurs as
immediately, which we tend to associate with being “instantaneous.”  But it also has the sense of being “straight up” or “straight forward.”  Consider how this nuance changes the way some of these passages in Mark might be read:
·     “Then Jesus perceived
with clarity and focus in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves.” (Mark 2:8)
·     “But when the grain is ripe, he goes in with his sickle
with discipline and efficiency, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:29)
·     “But Jesus spoke to them
with straight talk, and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  (Mark 6:50)
·     “Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’  Then he was able to see
straight and true and followed him on the way.”  (Mark 10:52)
From the beginning of his gospel until the very end, Mark’s primary concern is that we understand that living the life of Jesus is one of focus, discipline, and intentionality.  Follow the commandments. Don’t deviate.  Stay focused and don’t lose track.  (And by all means, don’t speed!)
If you are interested in giving God a gift this Christmas, there may be no better one than the gift of your obedience to the way and will of Christ in your life.  That is our theme for this Sunday, and I encourage you to spend some time in these upcoming days to confess openly and prayerfully all those things that have kept you from a full and free obedience to God.  
According to Mark, there can be no better preparation for Christmas than the one you do in your own soul.  Let us all prepare the way of the Lord, and make his paths
Peace, Love, and Joy,

The Rev. Magrey R. deVega
St. Paul's United Methodist Church
531 W. Main St.
Cherokee, IA  51012
Ph:  712-225-3955

Mark 1:1-8
1  The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2   As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way;
3  the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
   “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” ’,
4  John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
5  And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
6  Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
7  He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.
8  I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’