xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Mid-Week Message: February 2009

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ready or Not

February 25, 2009
Dear St. Paul’s Family,
Man, oh man.  I think most of us are still buzzing about last night’s festivities. What an incredible night!  Be sure to read the end of today’s Mid-Week Message for more about the Great Cherokee Pancake Race and Shrove Tuesday Service.  But first….


For years, people have told me to enjoy my children while they are still young, because they will grow up so fast.  That has certainly been true.  But in the Christian liturgical cycle, no child grows up faster than Jesus.  Just two months ago today, we were basking in Bethlehem starlight, celebrating his birth.  And now, just two months later, thirty years in gospel time, we are preparing for the journey to Jerusalem.
Ready or not, it’s time for Lent.  
It is worth noting some significant differences between Christmas Day and Ash Wednesday.  Christmas is predictable: without fail, it is always on December 25.  We order our lives and our calendars around it.  It never backs into November, never slides into January.  School semesters always break for it, retailers bet on it, and families plan travel around it.  There is something constant, and comforting, about this holiday fixture.
But Easter moves around.  Independent of our secular schedules, it is – are you ready for this – on the first Sunday after the first full moon that occurs on or following the spring equinox on the 21st of March.  This means that Ash Wednesday can occur as early as the first week in February or as late as the second week in March. That’s a variation of nearly 35 days!
What this means is that Lent often sneaks up on us.  It catches us off guard.  It can disrupt our planning.  Sometimes the schools have spring break during Holy Week, and sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes the stores have lots of time between their Valentine’s chocolates and their Cadbury Easter eggs, and sometimes they don’t.  Whereas Christmas is comforting in its constancy, Lent can be devious in its elusiveness.
And when you think about it, maybe that is an accurate reflection of how we live our lives:
·     We can know with precision the exact date, and even the time of our own births.  But we cannot know with the same certainty the moment of our deaths.
·     We can know with certainty God’s constant love and faithfulness.  But we can be quite blind to the sin that germinates and blooms within the subsoil of our existence.
·     We can know with absolute conviction what God has done for us through Christ.  But we can be quite ambivalent in committing ourselves to that same Christ.
·     We are quick to bask in the life, light, and joy of knowing Jesus.  But we are caught off guard when that relationship calls us to humility, sobriety, and self-sacrifice.  
For the secularized Christian, what Wesley would call an “Almost Christian,” celebration is a given, but discipline is elusive.  A life of mere good deeds and a life of sincere, committed faith can be eons apart.
Regardless of how subtly this Lenten season has snuck up on you, we are all here together, to begin a 40-day journey marked by an invitation to look deeply within our lives and find what resides within the shadowy parts of our souls.  Ready or not, we enter into a time of acknowledgement, confession, surrender, and ultimately, transformation.
I invite you to begin the journey with a special Ash Wednesday service tonight at 7:00, which will include the imposition of ashes.  And then, this Sunday, we start a new sermon series called
“Upside Down:  How the Cross Changes Everything.”  We’ll explore the many ways that following Christ inverts many of our ingrained patterns of behavior, and flips conventional wisdom on its ear. We’ll begin with a sermon focusing on forgiveness, and Christ’s astonishing command for us to forgive people “seventy times seven” times.  
Come along for the journey, and invite an unchurched family member or friend to come along.  This will be a powerful, deeply meaningful time together.
Ready or not, let’s observe a holy Lent.
Grace and Peace,
The Rev. Magrey R. deVega
St. Paul's United Methodist Church
531 W. Main St.
Cherokee, IA  51012
Ph:  712-225-3955

Upside Down:  How the Cross Changes Everything
Lent 2009

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
                                                                        (Matthew 16:24-25)

Repentance:  Inward Turned Outward
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Ash Wednesday, February 25
Service at 7:00pm
Forgiveness:  Seventy Times Seven
Matthew 18:21-22
March 1
Servanthood:  The Way Down is the Way Up
Philippians 2:1-11
March 8
Peace:  Anger’s Antidote
Matthew 5:1-11
March 15
Joy:  Anxiety Upside Down
James 1:2-4
March 22
Equality:  The First Will Be Last
Matthew 20:1-16
March 29
Obedience:  Losing Life to Gain It
Matthew 26:36-46
Palm Sunday, April 5
Love:  The Greatest Commandment
John 13:1-20
Maundy Thursday, April 9
Service at 7:00pm
Crucifixion:  The Covenant of Grace
Matthew 16:24-25
Good Friday, April 10
Service at 7:00pm
Resurrection:  The Great Reversal
Mark 16:1-8
Easter Sunday, April 12
Services at 7:00 and 10:10

What an amazing, memorable day we shared together yesterday!  In all, about 80 racers and hundreds of fans participated in the first annual Great Cherokee Pancake Day race, followed by a standing-room only Shrove Tuesday service.  The pancake supper served 300 people, and brought in over $2,200 for the two local food pantries.  There was such a tangible feeling of joy and goodwill on the streets and in the church, and everyone was buzzing about St. Paul’s efforts to put on such a great day.  Be sure to catch today’s radio and newspaper coverage, and if you missed KTIV’s great segment last night, watch the video at http://www.ktiv.com/Global/story.asp?S=9900778
  To view the first batch of pictures from yesterday’s event, check out our website.  Great job, St. Paul’s!
At the charge conference convened by our District Superintendent Berne Colorado last Monday night, the church unanimously approved the purchase of the two 6th Street properties south of the church, which will be demolished and prepared for parking adjacent to our accessible west entrance.  The Building Committee will now work on securing a company to demolish and clear the properties.
As announced during worship last Sunday, St. Paul’s exceeded the amount needed to achieve third-mile giving towards local and global missions through the Iowa Conference’s Rainbow Covenant Missions Giving program.  This is the first time St. Paul’s has achieved this goal, which is the highest possible status for missions giving in the conference. We give thanks to God for the generosity of the people of St. Paul’s.
This Sunday we receive our annual offering for the One Great Hour of Sharing, which supports the work of the United Methodist Committee on Relief.  UMCOR provides aid and relief to people who have been affected by catastrophic disasters all around the world.  

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Great Cherokee Pancake Day Race

February 17, 2009

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

What a difference twenty months has made for this Florida-born, suburban-bred, Iowa newbie transplant.  

Since coming to town, I have attended two pork feeds, offered the invocation at a rodeo, performed a wedding in a refurbished barn, and ridden a combine.  I’ve learned that the people of Iowa are just as solid, salt-of-the-earth, and honest as they are rumored to be, and have even taken a liking to this crisp, clean, winter air.  (Unless my nerve endings are too frozen to know any better.)

But after all of this, nothing – and I mean
nothing – could possibly have prepared me for my first pancake race.  Next Tuesday, February 24, a crowd of women dressed in skirts, aprons, and head-kerchiefs will race 415 yards in possible freezing temperature, while carrying a cast-iron skillet and a pancake.  In a Shrove Tuesday tradition harkening back to Olney, England, Cherokee will join communities large and small around the world in its first annual Great Cherokee Pancake Day Race.  And standing at the finish line,  greeting these heroines in house dresses, will be yours truly, ready to award the winner with the traditional “Kiss of Peace” accompanied by the words, “The peace of the Lord be always with you.”

If they offered a class in seminary to train me for this, I should have taken it.

There are many reasons why I am looking forward to the big race.  First, anticipation for the event has generated major buzz throughout the town.  The newspaper, radio, and Channel 4 news are all committed to covering it, and pockets of people all over town are talking about the biggest thing to land in Cherokee since Pilot Rock.  This has all produced some very positive exposure for the church, which is always a good thing.

Second, this is a worthwhile fundraiser.  After the Shrove Tuesday service and awards ceremony, we will gather for a pancake supper down in the Fellowship Hall, where folks can leave a free-will donation.  All of the proceeds will go to support the food pantries at both Immaculate Conception Catholic Church and Mid-Sioux Opportunities, Inc.  The idea that other people’s food pantries will be replenished on a day usually set aside for cleaning out your own is deliciously ironic.   

Third, it is great to see churches cooperating together with an ecumenical spirit.  Clergy from the Presbyterian, Lutheran, Catholic, and Evangelical Free churches will all be present to help officiate some part of the race.  But let the record show that only this minister will have the privilege of delivering the kiss to the winner.  (Which, incidentally, is the only reason my wife will be competing.  Not because she is desperate for a kiss from me, but to make sure I don’t kiss anyone else!)

But here is the biggest reason I am most excited and most proud of the event coming up.  From its genesis to its implementation, this event emerged from the vision of a handful of lay people in the Sunday morning adult class.  Months ago, they dreamed up the idea and worked to make it a reality, securing approval from the city council and local police chief, and coordinating details large and small to make it happen.  My job has been quite simple:  Clear the way to make sure they had what they needed, and do everything I could to promote it.  (Except wear the poofy chef’s hat in church.  I do have my limits.)

This idea came from the grass roots, just the way it should be.

I want you to know that in this congregation, good, spirit-driven ideas for ministry can come from anyone at anytime.  God does not grant exclusive ability of dreaming up new ideas to only ordained clergy.  Lay people just like you have the ability to receive a divine spark of creativity and initiate a brand new program or ministry in the church.

It may be that the next bold initiative of this church may be residing in your spirit, tucked in and among your deepest passions and your most latent abilities.  If you have such an idea, know that this is a permission-giving church, where we will remove as many barriers as possible to help you shepherd your vision to fruition.  

The parameters are simple.  It just needs to follow our mission.  It needs to put God’s Love into Action in one or more of the following ways:  1)  Transform a person’s life, 2)  Improve the community around us, or 3)  Change the world.  Beyond that, there is wide latitude for you to use your passion and the creativity of the Holy Spirit to watch God work in and through this church.

I am very grateful for the passion and energy that several in this church have put into making next week’s event possible.  And I am even more grateful to be serving a church where great ideas can come from anyone at any time.

Maybe yours is next.

Grace and Peace,


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

Today is the last day to turn in your registration form for the big race.  Forms are available at the church office, in the Wellness Center, City Hall, or the radio station.  Or, you can find them on our website at cherokeespumc.org.

We mark the start of the season of Lent with a service of word and the imposition of ashes on Wednesday, February 25 at 7:00pm.  Join us for this meaningful worship service.  

We conclude our sermon series “Life’s Three Big Questions” with the final of our five value statements.  Come hear about how we are part of the larger body of Christ around the world with a sermon titled “Who are We?  A Part of the Global Church.”  We will celebrate all that St. Paul’s did to put God’s love into action in mission and service in 2008, and give you a chance to take part in the One Great Hour of Sharing special offering.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Fewer Sales Pitches, More Free Samples

February 10, 2009

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

I realize the Super Bowl is old news by now, but I’m still thinking about a by-product of last week’s big game.  

If you watched the commercials, you may have caught the one for Denny’s Restaurant advertising a free breakfast to anyone from 6am to 2pm the following Tuesday.  Throughout the country, millions of people crammed into their nearest Denny’s for what was essentially a free $5.99 meal. Putting aside the marketing benefits this publicity stunt produced for the restaurant chain, I was fascinated by how this move elicited an overwhelmingly grateful response among the 2 million people who stood in line.  Newspapers the next day chronicled the reactions:

    "It's a great day," said Carolyn Mieritz of Phoenix, Arizona.  “This is unbelievable.”
    “It’s definitely a blessing,” said Josh Richardson, of Greenville, South Carolina.
    “I’m very grateful,” said Jennifer Haslam, of Newark, Delaware.

Such is the reaction when people receive a surprising gift, with no strings attached.  

Denny’s isn’t the first company to tap into the power of the genuinely free gift.  In the book
Made to Stick:  Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath, I am reminded of the example of Nordstrom’s department stores.  What would compel people to continue shopping at a high-end luxury store whose goods are often more expensive than other retailers?  The answer:  surprising and complimentary acts of generous customer service.  

Past Nordstrom’s employees have:

•    Ironed a new shirt for a customer who needed it for a meeting that afternoon;
•    Cheerfully gift wrapped products a customer bought at Macy’s;
•    Warmed customers’ cars in winter while they finished shopping;
•    Made a last-minute delivery of party clothes to a frantic hostess;
•    And even refunded money for a set of tire chains – although Nordstrom doesn’t sell tire chains.

Now, does any of this make sense?  Why would Nordstrom’s employees go to such outlandish lengths to reach out to customers?  And why would Denny’s give away 5 million dollars of breakfast food – for free?

Maybe, in a world saturated with false promises and strings-attached offers, we’ve grown cynical to the idea that
free might really mean free.  And every once in a while, when a surprising gesture of uncommon generosity breaks through, we stop and pay attention.  

Somewhere, there’s a lesson here for the church.  Jim Harnish, the senior pastor at my previous church, is fond of saying that when it comes to sharing the gospel, the church needs to make fewer sales pitches and offer more free samples.  Maybe we should take a page out of the Denny’s and Nordstrom’s playbooks and realize all of the free samples at our disposal:

•    In offering forgiveness where others would expect retribution.  
•    In forming true friendships in a culture of increasing isolation.
•    In welcoming others with uncanny hospitality and open-mindedness.
•    In introducing people to a God who, since the very beginning, has specialized in joyful surprises.  

The church must never lose its ability to surprise.  To share with the world  something greater than a six-dollar breakfast or freshly pressed shirt.  We alone can offer the gift of God’s grace, which no one deserves, no one can earn, and that God gives freely and eagerly to a hungry and hurting world.  If we ever did get about the business of offering this free gift and making it known, imagine the lines snaking around the corners.  If we really did our job of transforming lives, improving the community, and changing the world, imagine someday hearing these same responses:

“It’s a great day.  This is unbelievable.”
    “It’s definitely a blessing.”
    “I’m very grateful.”

May God strengthen us for holy task, so that responses like these will come – as no surprise.

It’s still great to be the church,


The Rev. Magrey R. deVega
St. Paul's United Methodist Church
531 W. Main St.
Cherokee, IA  51012
Ph:  712-225-3955
Fax:  712-225-1276

The church is moving forward with plans to add additional property for the purposes of expanding parking adjacent to the handicapped-accessible west entrance.  Read through the following “Frequently Asked Questions,” and direct questions and comments to Magrey, Dave Appleby (Trustees), John Cook (Finance), or Keith Willis (Building Committee).

Q.  What properties are being considered?
A.  The two houses on 6th Street, adjacent to the south alley of the church.  They were purchased by a consortium of church members years ago with the intent of selling them to the church in the future.

Q.  What are the terms of the purchase?
A.  The sale price is $25,000, with terms of the transaction involving a five-year, unsecured note, interest-free, with no payments necessary until the end of the five-year term.  Whenever payment is made, the consortium would use that money as seed money for possible future acquisitions.

Q.  What will be done with the properties?
A.  The properties would be demolished and the ground leveled to provide additional parking for those who prefer to use the accessible west entrance.  The Building Committee is receiving a number of bids for demolition, and should have one to recommend at Charge Conference.  The current bid for demolition stands at $45,000, but we are confident that the final bid will come in much lower than that.

Q.  Does this fit our mission?
A.  This is a key piece of the “Facilities and Campus Renovations” segment of the 20/20 Vision Plan that was adopted last Fall by the church.  It will greatly enhance our hospitality to people with special parking needs.

Q.  How will the church pay for this?
A.  The Finance Committee will explore a number of options, but the likely scenario is that the money to purchase the property may be lumped into a larger Capital Campaign that will start in the next 18-24 months that will include renovations to the education wing and Kitchen/Fellowship Hall.  The cost for demolition may need to be secured in the short-term through a bank loan.

Q.  What is the timeline moving forward?  
A.  Because estimates for demolition are lower during the winter, we are wanting to move efficiently and quickly.  The Administrative Board will be meeting on February 19, and our District Superintendent Bernie Colorado has called a Charge Conference for Monday, February 23, at 7pm for the church to take action on this.  Every member of the church is a voting member of the Charge Conference.

Attention, race fans!  Gentlewomen, start your frying pans!  The first-ever Cherokee Pancake Race will take place on Shrove Tuesday, February 24, at 5:30pm.  This event carries on a tradition from Olney, England, in which women dressed in aprons and kerchiefs carry cast iron pans and pancakes along a 415-yard race from City Hall to St. Paul’s.  After the race, prizes will be awarded at a Shriving Service in the sanctuary that will prepare us for Lent, followed by a pancake supper where we will receive free-will donations to support the local food pantries.  Registration forms for racers are available at the church office and on the website.

The church has a new fax machine, and can receive faxes via 225-1276.  Please use 225-3955 for all regular phone calls to the church.

We continue our worship series “Life’s Three Big Questions” with another sermon based on our new value statements that define the unique character of the people of St. Paul’s.  Come hear a sermon titled, “Who are We?  A People in the Center,” based on 1 Corinthians 1:10-17.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Long Arch of Grace

February 3, 2009

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

Since turning 36 a few weeks ago, I’ve come to the humbling realization that I am not a young man anymore.  

I had been hearing for years now about the dearth of young clergy in the United Methodist Church, often defined as pastors under 35 years old.  I had prided myself in being a prized rarity; but, alas, the church has just lost another one.  Nielsen ratings executives have convinced us that 18-35 year olds are the goldmine demographic – the “young adults.”  And just yesterday, my wife came to realize that since we met each other when we were 18, we’ve known each other for half our lives.  We might as well be Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn.

Now, lest you think this message is all about the mournful musings of a recent Middle-Ager, it’s not.  It’s really more about the timeless grace of God.

Last week, I spent time with the Florida Conference Board of Ordained Ministry.   It is always a highlight of the year for me to reconnect with friends and colleagues and do the important work of evaluating candidates for ministry.  At the end of the week, I had the privilege of leading closing worship, during which I preached a sermon that centered on the great theological word, “therefore.”  (I hope the sermon was more interesting than how I just made it sound.)

After the service, my friend Rev. Sylvia Russell, with whom I served on a church staff prior to my going to seminary, stopped to tell me that my sermon triggered a poignant memory for her.  She remembered that the word “therefore” was the favorite word of Rev. Ed Norman, who served my boyhood church in the early 1980’s.  He frequently anchored his sermons on that word, as a linguistic and theological lynchpin in his communication of the faith.  

Sylvia’s memory prompted my own recollections of Ed.  As I remember him from my childhood, he was everything I thought a pastor should look like and talk like.  He had a kind face and understanding eyes, and a soothing yet commanding pulpit voice that offered equal parts credibility and gentility.  And he had a warming welcome for everyone he encountered.

But here’s how I really remember Ed Norman today.  Without him, my parents would never have joined Pasadena Community Church in St. Petersburg, FL.  And without Pasadena, I would never have gone to a United Methodist Church in my youth.  And without my youth experience at that church, I never would have been confirmed as a member and fallen in love with the Wesleyan faith.  Which means I never would have been called into ministry, and I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now, exactly what God has called me to do.

And the idea that Ed Norman’s favorite sermon-word would somehow creep into the vocabulary of a certain, no-longer-young preacher serving in Cherokee, IA, is both astounding and humbling to me.  But it shouldn’t be surprising.  I guess God’s grace has a way of moving forward, and full circle, at the same time.  

It’s funny; turning 36 is no big deal in light of eternity.  We tend to measure time ego-centrically, as if anything that happened prior to our arrival on earth is ancient history, or as if anything that doesn’t affect us in the present moment is irrelevant.

We live life in pixels; grace zooms out in a glorious wide-angle.  Our lives are like tiny specks of sand; grace perceives the hourglass in full.  We live in the short-term; grace travels the long arch of time.

It makes me appreciate even more the reflections of one of the wisest humans who ever lived, who mused:

I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover, he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.  
(Ecclesiastes 3:10-11)

God’s grace is the imperceptible thread that links your story with the lives of countless spiritual ancestors.  And it will ensure your impact on those who will follow you long after you are gone.  It binds humanity together into the sweeping narrative of God’s love for all creation.  No matter how young you are or how old you feel, you will always be a part of it.  

Grace, indeed,


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

Attention, race fans!  Gentlewomen, start your frying pans!  The first-ever Cherokee Pancake Race will take place on Shrove Tuesday, February 24, at 5:30pm.  This event carries on a tradition from Olney, England, in which women dressed in aprons and kerchiefs carry cast iron pans and pancakes along a 415-yard race from City Hall to St. Paul’s.  After the race, prizes will be awarded at a Shriving Service in the sanctuary that will prepare us for Lent, followed by a pancake supper where we will receive free-will donations to support the local food pantries.  Registration forms for racers are available at the church office.

Thank you, St. Paul’s, for the great response in supporting the youth group’s upcoming ski trip to Mankato.  The cinnamon roll sale brought in over $600.00, which will greatly offset the cost of the trip and make it affordable for more people to come.  Thank you!

Youth grades 7-12 are invited to join us for a fun Valentine’s Day part from 5-7pm this Sunday.  Come play fun Valentine’s games, and hear a lesson on true love.  

Join us as we continue our sermon series on “Life’s Three Big Questions” with a sermon called “Who are We?  A People Who Welcome.”  This is the third of our value statements that define the character of St. Paul’s UMC, and we will hear about the Parable of the Great Dinner in Luke 14:12-24.