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

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Unpronounceable, But Indispensable

August 25, 2009
Dear St. Paul’s Family,
I have to admit: when putting together the daily scripture readings for our series on Nehemiah, I intentionally skipped having you read chapter three.  Mostly because I thought I’d spare you such unpronounceable morsels as these:
The sons of Hassenaah built the Fish Gate; they laid its beams and set up its doors, its bolts, and its bars. Next to them Meremoth son of Uriah son of Hakkoz made repairs. Next to them Meshullam son of Berechiah son of Meshezabel made repairs. Next to them Zadok son of Baana made repairs.  (Nehemiah 3:3-4)
And even if you could say all these names, reading the entire chapter is bound to induce even the hardiest insomniac to sound slumber.

But now I’m having second thoughts.  

To set the stage, imagine the scene that greeted Nehemiah upon his return to Jerusalem.  Piles of rubble heaped where once stood proud buildings, and robust walls.  Amid this uninhabitable wasteland, Nehemiah and his team got to work. Rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem seemed improbable at best, and foolhardy at worst.  But before any bricks were laid or any mortar set, the first thing for this fledgling leader to do was organize his limited labor pool.  

The laborers weren’t given the option of working alone, or told to select their favorite portion of the wall.  Rather, Nehemiah organized the people into small groups, and assigned them to specific portions.  It was such a critical strategy that the book of Nehemiah devotes an entire chapter to detailing who worked where, and with whom.  Nehemiah, it seems, believed in the power of small groups to advance a mission.  
You can see where this is going.  If Nehemiah were the head of a church, he would have stressed to his parishioners the importance of small group ministry.  Fortunately, none of his laborers gave the excuses we’re used to giving:  “Sorry, Nehemiah.  I can’t be in a small group.  My kids have stuff to do every night of the week.”   “No, count me out, too.  I’d just prefer to work on the wall by myself.  Isn’t that good enough?”  “C’mon, Nehemiah.  I work on the wall on Sundays.  Why do I need to come back to the wall during the week?”  

It’s a good thing he heard none of those excuses.  Because right after chapter three, we get to chapter four, where the real trouble starts.  Opposition to the wall came with ferocity, in the form of two individuals who threatened to derail the project, attack the workers, and destroy their efforts.  Fortunately, Nehemiah’s small group strategy was perfectly suited for protection, as well as construction.  Whenever threats arose, a trumpet sounded, and the small groups rallied to each other’s aid, converging at whatever point in the wall had need.

No, you’re not required to read Nehemiah chapter three.  But I’d suggest you plod through it anyway.  Because somewhere, among the fifty names, and the ten sections of the wall, you’ll get the sense that there is something really valuable about individuals banding together in small groups, to accomplish a greater mission.
This Sunday, we’ll do some organizing of our own, in the form of four new small groups that will be offered this Fall. The idea for this came from the 20/20 Vision Plan you adopted last fall, which includes the development of a new, dynamic small group ministry.  I have no better way to say it than plainly and bluntly.  If you have never participated in a Bible study or small group experience at St. Paul’s, there is no better time than now, and no excuse not to.  
These four groups vary in content, length of commitment, and day/time of the week.  
COMPANIONS IN CHRIST  - Facilitator:  Marilyn Brubaker
Tuesdays, 1:00-2:30pm, beginning October 6 at the church.  Six weeks.
Companions in Christ is an exploration into the spiritual practices of prayer, scripture reading, and journaling that will deepen your faith and strengthen relationships with others on your journey.  It is highly recommended for those new to the faith.
Cost:  $10, for a workbook.
THE MIRACLE OF LIFE CHANGE – Facilitator:  C.W. Miller
Tuesdays, 7:00-9:00pm, beginning September 22 at the church.  10 weeks.
Is life change really possible? Maybe you’ve tried numerous programs that promise big changes, but in reality, deliver very few results. This course explores new life and transformation from a biblical perspective.  Good news: there is hope!
Cost:  $7.00 for a copy of the book.
Sundays, 9-10am, beginning September 13 at the church.  4 weeks.
“The Boss” is one of the most prolific and beloved American songwriters of our time.  But did you know that much of the content of his songs speaks directly to Christian themes and issues of social justice? Join this fun, creative journey connecting the Christian faith to pop culture.
Cost:  $13.00 for a copy of the book.
JESUS THE ONE AND ONLY – Facilitators:  Andrea Cook and Mollie Johnson
Monday nights, 7-9pm, beginning September 13 in homes.  11 weeks.
Experience this intimate look at the life of Jesus, and explores ways to make Christ Lord of your life.  This course is specially designed for women of all ages.
Cost:  $15 for the workbook.
We’ve made it very easy for you to sign up as well: just contact the church office, or respond to this e-mail.  
Join us this Sunday as we continue our sermon series, “reFresh: Give Your Faith a Fresh Start.”  We’ll explore this part of Nehemiah’s story further, as well as the wonderful story of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. Together, let’s get to work!
Grace and Peace,

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Cup-Bearer Turned Contractor

August 18, 2009
Dear St. Paul’s Family,
            For the next four weeks, we will be studying the life of one of the Bible’s most underrated and least known figures. While most of us were raised on a steady staple of David, Moses, and Abraham, it was not until later in life that I read about the great rebuilder of the Jerusalem wall, the cup-bearer turned contractor.  
            Meet Nehemiah, the Bible’s version of Ty Pennington.
            We don’t know much about him, except that he was an Israelite living in a foreign land, working for a foreign king.  Through shrewd negotiating, he gained approval to take a band of countrymen back to the homeland, some 140 years after their people had been exiled and their cities destroyed.  What ensues is an ancient story replete with modern parallels.  In fact, these moments from Nehemiah seem to leap off today’s headlines:

·     He had to deal with harsh critics who threatened to undermine his national initiatives.
·     He conducted a rancorous town hall meeting, in which people complained about a down economy, unfair taxes, and unjust lending practices.
·     He needed to cast a vision for a new community ethic, based both on personal responsibility and mutual concern.

           On the surface, the story of Nehemiah is about a massive public works project.  And what a project it was:  the wall, when completed, stretched 27 miles long, was half a football field deep, and was built against all odds, including a shortage of labor and the constant threat of attack.  Yet they completed it all in 52 days  (take that, Iowa D.O.T.!)
            But on a much deeper level, the lasting influence of Nehemiah was not found in bricks and mortar, but in the rebuilding of human hearts and a God-fearing community.  In fact, when putting together this upcoming sermon series on having a refreshed faith, I found numerous connections to this incredible story, one for each week in the series:

·     Nehemiah was spiritually centered, grounded in a life of earnest prayer.    
·     He was certain that people were stronger when they banded together in small groups, and were better able to withstand tough times.
·     He and Ezra reminded the people of the importance of the Scriptures, reading them aloud and fostering a renewed sense of identity and responsibility.  
·     He called for an unwavering commitment for the people to be followers of God.

           Forget about stone and cement.  Nehemiah’s greatest achievement was the rebuilding of the Israelite faith.
            For the next four weeks, we will follow his story, and experience together how our faith can similarly be renewed. We’re calling the series “reFresh: Giving Your Faith a Fresh Start.” And we’ll learn new ways to jump start our faith with fresh looks at prayer, small groups, and scripture reading.  You’ll also be hearing about the five new small groups we will be starting this fall, and will be encouraged to sign up for one, especially if you have never been part of one before.
            When it comes to having a rebuilt and refreshed faith, let us be guided by these words of Nehemiah:
“The God of heaven is the one who will give us success, and we his servants are going to start building.”
Grace and Peace,

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

From Belief to Awe

He who can no longer pause to wonder, is as good as dead.   
Albert Einstein
       I share Einstein's affirmation that anyone who is not lost on the rapturous awe at the power and glory of the mind behind the universe "is as good as a burnt out candle."  
Madeleine L'Engle

August 11, 2009

Dear St. Paul’s Family,
Back in college, I often babysat a 3-month old boy named Zack.  He was equal parts adorable and energetic, but neither matched his innate curiosity.  His baby blues were wide-eyed with wonder, and I’ll never forget the day he discovered his hands.
To Zack, hands and fingers were strange aliens, orbiting in the subspace of his budding awareness.  He watched in amazement as these strange creatures wiggled and waved, clenched and fanned, much to his endless delight.  He’d smile at his fingers, then suck on them, then giggle at them, all the while appreciating the mysteries of his fledgling body.
Zack is all grown up today, and by now I suspect that all of the mystery is gone.  He has since taken courses in biology and anatomy, and discovered terms like “muscles” and “metacarpals,” “nerve impulses” and “ligaments.”  He has learned about the complex interplay of biological systems that make the ordinary task of wiggling one’s fingers understandable and mundane.   But with knowledge comes loss.  Gone is the sense of child-like wonder, along with his wide-eyed curiosity.

Curiosity evokes wonder, but familiarity revokes mystery.
Lifelong disciples know this all too well.  Over time, as we learn the language of the faith and ritualize our belief through spiritual practices, our base of knowledge about God and the Christian life grows.  But with every insightful epiphany, every addition to our ever-expanding corpus of spiritual understanding we forfeit a dose of curiosity.  We lose a sense of the mysterious.  The more we know, the more we grow, and the more we “put an end to childish ways.”


Renita Weems is a writer, minister, Biblical scholar, and professor of Old Testament studies at Vanderbilt University.  She is well-known for her writing, speaking, and pioneering scholarship, and for two decades has mastered and taught the tenets of the faith.  But beneath the fa├žade, she was lost in a spiritual crisis, in which she experienced abandonment from God.
Her book, “Listening for God” chronicles her long, painful journey through silence and doubt, and is interspersed with entries from her journal during this difficult time.  At the end of the book, as this wilderness experience drew to a close and she emerged from her darkness, she wrote the following:

11 February 1995
    I feel myself turning the corner. After nine months of chaotic silence, the desire to hear my thoughts out returned today.  I woke up with an appetite for a well thought-out thout. I started a book this morning with the words “For everything I have learned there has been a season for getting it done.”  The season of my melancholy appears to be rapidly vanishing.  The storm is passing over.  Hallelujah!!
    A miracle isn’t a miracle because it defies explanation.  A miracle is a miracle because it is experienced as a miracle.  It happened at the time when I needed grace most, namely, on the last day for miracles.  

The truly remarkable transformation is not the one from
unbelief to belief
nor from despair to hope.
The truly remarkable (and frightening) transformation is from
Dogma to wonder
Belief to awe.
Today, awe returned.

(Renita Weems, “Listening for God.”  New York:  Simon & Shuster, 1999)


Regardless of how long you have been a Christian, whether you are a long-time church member or a first-time follower, we could all use a fresh dose of awe and wonder.  That is the premise of our new five-part worship series, called “reFresh:  Giving Your Faith a Fresh Start.”  We’ll begin with a sermon called “Meeting God Again for the First Time” based on Psalm 42, and together we’ll hear ways that we can move from “dogma to wonder,” from “belief to awe.”
This would be a great worship series for you to invite an unchurched friend or loved one to attend.  Come experience a faithlift, and may we all look forward to saying, “Today, awe returned.”
Grace and Peace,

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

For Promise and Provision, Much Gratitude

August 4, 2009
Dear St. Paul’s Family,
During our recent trip to Washington, D.C., we visited the National Archives, which houses the original
Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.  These now-faded parchments once bore the fresh iron-gall ink used by our founders to harness the power of words and capture the hopes of a fledgling nation.  They risked their reputations, and their lives, to carve a future for their descendants that they would not claim for themselves.  Now, these documents stand as lasting symbols of courage and selflessness, built on the promise of a future greater than the present.
That same promise inspired a young, single Filipino man forty-one years ago to make a sacrifice of his own, for the benefit of his offspring.  My father, Maghirang deVega, left an established and comfortable career as a high school physics teacher in the Philippines, with the belief that when he eventually married and started a family, he wanted his children to have the best chance at the best possible future.  
Finding no work in San Diego, he cobbled together his remaining dollars to buy a one-way Greyhound bus ticket to Key West, Florida, where he heard whispers of a job opening. With barely enough money for bus stop vending machines, he pursued this dream for his children, only to find disappointment when those job prospects never materialized.  A few weeks later and essentially penniless, he traveled north to St. Petersburg, Florida, where he interviewed and received employment at a small, start-up chemical engineering plant.  Years later, he married my mother, became a citizen of this country, and, in 1973, gave birth to me.  Decades later, my father still works for the same company that first fulfilled that promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
As I stood in the grand rotunda of the National Archives, remembering both the founding fathers and my own father, I realized this simple truth:  in my heritage is my inheritance.  The great gifts I enjoy today – freedom, privilege, and opportunity – are borne from a long history of individuals who gauged their own success by the future they would bestow, not the life they would consume.  They believed in a promise they might not themselves see realized.  And in that moment, I felt an emotional convergence of humility and gratitude.
Leaving the rotunda, I looked into the cherubic faces of my own charge, two little girls who would someday weigh the impact of their own father’s influence.  Today, as I stand in the shadow of ancestral giants, I discover in my girls the faint traces of my own silhouette.  They will someday inherit a heritage of my making, and the enduring movement of promise and hope will continue.
It is likely no coincidence that on the heels of this deeply meaningful vacation, our scripture reading for this Sunday is the last words of David to his son Solomon.  As his long and illustrious life drew to a close, he chose his last words carefully:  
When David’s time to die drew near, he charged his son Solomon, saying:  “I am about to go the way of all the earth.  Be strong, be courageous, and keep the charge of the Lord your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his ordinances, and his testimonies, as it is written in the law of Moses, so that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn.”
This great hero of the Israelite people, the shepherd laureate, the giant-slayer, the warrior king, considered all his life’s trophies and came to one conclusion.  All of his past achievements paled in comparison to the greatest gifts he could leave to his descendants:  faithfulness, courage, and a hopeful future. This heritage would be their greatest inheritance.
This Sunday, join us as we bring to conclusion our worship series on the life of David with a sermon titled, “Looking to the Future.”  It is true: someday, we will all “go the way of all the earth.”  For those who will come after us, through a church that will endure beyond our years, what legacy will we leave behind?
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

1 Kings 6:1-4, 10-12
1  When David’s time to die drew near, he charged his son Solomon, saying:  
2  “I am about to go the way of all the earth.  Be strong, be courageous,
3  and keep the charge of the Lord your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his ordinances, and his testimonies, as it is written in the law of Moses, so that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn.
4  Then the Lord will establish his word that he spoke concerning me:  ‘If your heirs take heed to their way, to walk before me in faithfulness with all their heart and with all their soul, there shall not fail you a successor on the throne of Israel.’
10  Then David slept with his ancestors, and was buried in the city of David.
11 The time that David reigned over Israel was forty years; he reigned seven years in Hebron, and thirty-three years in Jerusalem.  
12  So Solomon sat on the throne of his father David; and his kingdom was firmly established.

The Staff-Parish Relations Committee is searching for a new administrative assistant whose responsibilities would include both secretarial and congregational care duties.  If you are interested, please contact John Chalstrom, or visit the church website for the job description.  In addition, we are seeking individuals to serve as paid nursery care providers during our Sunday morning worship services.  For more information, contact Magrey in the church office.  We give great thanks to God for Jeanne Jones, Linzi Bierman, and Velma Martin for their service to the church over the years.