xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Mid-Week Message: January 2011

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Swans and Sober Judgment

January 26, 2011

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

This Sunday, our nine-year old daughter Grace will star in the Cherokee Community Theater’s presentation of Honk!, a musical adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s classic fable “The Ugly Duckling.” Gracie has been cast to play a barnyard turkey, which is a role that, in many ways, she was born to play. Jessica and I will watch with pride, of course, although by now we know her lines by heart. We’ve been working with her on her script memorization, her turkey waddle, and the enthusiasm with which she will deliver her final line (“I...SURVIVED...THANKSGIVING!!”)

To familiarize myself with the musical, I re-read Anderson’s story, and was surprised to learn that the original version of “The Ugly Duckling” is much longer, and more nuanced, than the fairy tale I learned as a kid. It is more than just a brief story about an ugly bird that turned out to be a swan. It is a kind of morality tale, in which our little hero goes on a soul-searching journey, a quest for his identity, in the face of sharp criticism and bitter adversity. He endures merciless teasing by the other ducklings, taunting by an elder chief-duck, a near-death experience with some hunting dogs, a harrowing night with a tom-cat, beatings from chickens, chases by a broom-wielding woman, and a night stuck to the surface of a frozen pond, cold and hungry.

Lonely and dejected, with no hope for companionship, the ugly duckling spots some graceful swans flying overhead. With no idea that he is in fact one of them, he charges skyward, toward the flock, certain they will surely beat him to death. But he takes a risk, believing that he would rather spend one brief moment in the company of royalty then continue a life of abject misery.

Well, you know how the story ends. He sees his reflection, realizes his true identity, and is praised by observers for being younger and more beautiful than all the other swans.

A happy ending, right?

Except the punchline from Hans Christian Anderson is still to come. We may be tempted to extract only one lesson from this fairy tale: don’t care about what other people say, and believe in yourself. It’s a fine lesson, to be sure, but it’s not the only one Anderson wants to teach us. Rather than swinging completely from misery to triumph, from humiliation to boasting, the ugly duckling assumes a surprising balance between humility and pride: Then he felt quite ashamed, and hid his head under his wing; for he did not know what to do, he was so happy, and yet not at all proud. He had been persecuted and despised for his ugliness, and now he heard them say he was the most beautiful of all the birds. [1]

As much as there can be truth found in a fairy tale, here is the valuable lesson for all of us: View yourself with a balanced perspective.

I’m reminded of Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which he calls Christians to offer themselves as living sacrifices to God, not to be conformed to the world, and to renew their minds. Then, he writes these powerful words: I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. (Romans 12:3)

It’s as if Paul read “The Ugly Duckling” before writing his epistle. Don’t think of yourself too lowly, but don’t consider yourself too highly, either. Don’t vacillate between low self-esteem and chest-thumping pride. Instead, consider yourself with balance, with sober judgment. With sound scrutiny, and a realistic perspective.

If you want some practical tips on how to think of yourself with sober judgment, here is a quick, four-fold piece of guidance. Keep in mind, you can’t pick and choose; you need to keep all four of these statements in harmony in order to make it work:

1. You are never quite as bad as people say you are. It doesn’t matter what people may say about you, or even do to you. You are not defined by people’s insults, barbs, or personal attacks. Your life has value independent of what other people may think, and you are never quite as bad as what others say.

2. You are never quite as good as you think you are. Lest you swing the pendulum too far the other way, guard yourself against boasting. You know quite well that you always have room for improvement in your life, and you should never feel completely settled in the way you think, act, and relate to others. You are a work in progress, so be open to the Spirit’s constant work within you.

3. You are never quite as good as people say you are. I know, this is a tough one. For those of us – myself especially included – who crave external affirmation as a chief motivator, we should find a solid foundation of humility upon which to base our lives. Nothing steers us away from real, authentic living quite like pretension, solely designed to look good in front of others. So wean yourself off the need for public praise.

4. You are never quite as bad as you think you are. Let me admit: this is the toughest one for me. It’s one thing to understand the concept of grace, and even to define it with precise theological language. It’s quite another to live into it, accept it, and allow it to flow in my life. I suspect that may be the case for you. But God loves you for who you are. And this may sound like a trite, overwrought cliché, but don’t ignore its truth: God did not make a mistake when God created you. You may feel like an ugly duckling, but there is royalty within you: nothing less than the very image of Christ, waiting to shine through.

In the end, Hans Christian Anderson’s story does have a very happy ending. And so it will be for you, if you view yourself with balance, and “sober judgment:” Then he rustled his feathers, curved his slender neck, and cried joyfully, from the depths of his heart, “I never dreamed of such happiness as this, while I was an ugly duckling.”

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] http://hca.gilead.org.il/ugly_duc.html

Join us as we conclude our sermon series “Living Your Baptism” with a sermon called, “A Community Comes Together.” We’ll learn how baptism unites us into a common bond as the body of Christ.

I am currently in Leesburg, Florida, serving on the Florida Annual Conference Board of Ordained Ministry. I am interviewing and evaluating candidates for ministry, and will be back this Saturday. In the event of an emergency, please contact the church office.

Back by popular demand! The youth group will head back to Mt. Kato for another fun day of skiing on Saturday, February 19. We'll meet at the church at 6:45am and be back around 9:00pm. The cost will be determined by how much will be raised on February 6, but it should be about the same amount as last year. In addition, we need adults to serve as drivers and chaperones. Interested persons can contact John Chalstrom.

To raise funds for their ski trip, the youth will be sponsoring a Super Bowl snack sale on Sunday morning, February 6. People are needed to contributed snacks and treats to be sold that day. If interested, please contact Sue Parker.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Living Stones

January 19, 2011

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

In the southern mountain region of Peru lies the city of Cusco, the ancient capital of the Incan empire. Tucked amid its winding stone streets and little villages is a building whose foundation has stood since the 14th century. It is known locally as Hatunrumiyoc, or “Big Stone.” A closer look at its walls reveals why.

Unlike modern buildings, none of the stones used for Incan structures used mortar or cement. Builders measured the spaces they needed to fill, then searched throughout their quarries for stones whose unique shapes and edges could fit those spaces. After some simple smoothing with primitive tools (no iron or steel), the stones were placed exactly into position, filling gaps only these blocks could fill, and pieced together with the other stones in perfect alignment. The most vivid example of this remarkable feat of ancient engineering is the famous “12-Sided Stone” of Cusco, pictured above.

As amazing as this Incan accomplishment might be, I would contend that Hatunrumiyoc is not the most marvelous architectural triumph in history. Another kind of building has been in construction for the past 2,000 years, remaining strong despite all manner of adversity and difficulty. Each stone has been carefully selected, smoothed, and placed, fulfilling its unique destiny. Here is the blueprint, from 1 Peter:

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4-5)

Yep, here’s the kicker: you are one of those stones. You and I are “living stones,” a people chosen for the purpose of building the Kingdom of God. Deep within you is a unique collection of gifts to share in ministry, perspectives to share in small group community, and the means to reach out in love to the world. You have a unique network of relationships to draw others into faith in Christ, and you have distinct calling to serve in a specific place in ministry through this church. There is a gap that only you can fill, and you are a vital part of seeing God’s kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven.

Madeline L’Engle, in her memoir Walking on Water: Reflections on Art and Faith, offers these words of challenge for anyone who feels like they have no sizeable contributions to make in the world:

“In a very real sense not one of us is qualified, but it seems that God continually chooses the most unqualified to do his work, to bear his glory. If we are qualified, we tend to think that we have done the job ourselves. if we are forced to accept our evident lack of qualification, then there’s no danger that we will confuse God’s work with our own, or God’s glory with our own.

“It is interesting to note how many artists have had physical problems to overcome, deformities, lameness, terrible loneliness. Could Beethoven have written that glorious paean of praise in the Ninth Symphony if he had not to endure the dark closing in of deafness? As I look through his work chronologically, there’s no denying that it deepens and strengthens along with the deafness.

“Could Milton have seen all that he sees in Paradise Lost if he had not been blind? It is chastening to realize that those who have no physical flaw, who move through life in step with their peers, who are bright and beautiful, seldom become artists. The unending paradox is that we do learn through pain."

You may feel too fractured to be fruitful, with too much pain to be productive. Your life may feel like a scattered mess, without much hope for value or worth. But lest you think that you have no role to play in the building of the kingdom, and even if you can’t imagine how you could possibly make a difference, remember this: your baptism gives you all the qualifications you need. You need not be a veteran of the faith to begin using your talents, passions, and skills to make an impact today. The waters of God’s grace call you and qualify you to fill your special niche in the grandest building project ever known: the transformation of human hearts and the restoration of God’s created order.

We’ll learn more about the power of baptism on Sunday, as we continue our sermon series “Living Your Baptism” with a sermon titled, “Qualified to Serve.” Come be inspired to give of yourself and make a difference in the world.

Grace and Peace,


After all final tallies, receipts, and adjustments, we enter 2011 having paid all of last year’s expenses. Thank you so much for your faithfulness and generosity over the past year!

Magrey will be leaving after church this Sunday to serve a week on the Florida Annual Conference Board of Ordained Ministry. He will be interviewing and evaluating candidates for ministry, and will be back on Saturday, January 29. In the event of an emergency, please contact the church office.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"We Can Do Better Than This"

January 11, 2011

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

On Monday afternoon, soaring 250 miles above the earth, the commander of the International Space Station spoke to the world. Flight controllers in Houston fell hushed, listening to each carefully crafted word:

“As I look out the window, I see a very beautiful planet that seems very inviting and peaceful. Unfortunately, it is not. These days, we are constantly reminded of the unspeakable acts of violence and damage we can inflict upon one another, not just with our actions, but also with our irresponsible words. We're better than this. We must do better.” [1]

These poignant words were uttered by astronaut Scott Kelly, who this week is most notable for more than just his endeavors in orbit. He is also the brother-in-law of Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords, one of the victims of Saturday’s shooting in Tucson, Arizona. Though his vantage point afforded him a placid, serene view of the planet, Commander Kelly was not distant enough to escape the cold, harsh realities of a world fractured by violence, hatred, and suffering.

The shocking event that killed six and injured thirteen was a vivid reminder to all of us of the brokenness of the human condition. The following day, churches around the world gathered around their baptismal fonts to observe Baptism of the Lord Sunday. As we stood to reaffirm the vows we received at our own baptism, I was struck by the following words:

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

Most of the time, the words of our liturgy are precise, economical, and direct. But the power of this particular vow is in its open-endedness. When we talk about wrestling against evil, injustice, and oppression, we aren’t talking about children’s sermon sins or Sunday school foibles. We are talking about forces that don’t conform to our pre-conceived notions, and are subtle enough to sneak into our communal conscience. They present themselves, as if they have a life and mind of their own, like a serpent emerging from a garden’s shadows. They appear in whatever forms, which means we have to be diligent and sober, determined to unmask them. While we’d prefer to view humanity from the safety of the skies, we are called to holy investigation, to expose the evils, injustices, and oppressions that run rampant throughout the world.

· Through baptism, we have the freedom and power to resist the evils of hateful and polarizing rhetoric, from either extreme of the political spectrum. Words that leave the realm of earnest debate and thoughtful disagreement and put lives at risk have no place in our society, let alone the Kingdom of God.

· Through baptism, we have the freedom and power to resist the injustice of the public availability of certain guns whose only purpose is to kill masses of people. This is not a slight to the Second Amendment, but a call for sanity against a market that sells a 9-millimeter Glock, the gun which the alleged shooter used. It is a gun that Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign, said is “not suited for hunting or personal protection. What it’s good for is killing and injuring a lot of people quickly.” [2]

· Through baptism, we have the power and freedom to resist the oppression of undiagnosed and untreated mental illness, which affects millions of Americans every year. People walk through life in the shadow of any of a number of forms of depression, unwilling or unable to find help because of social stigma, fear, or lack of access to quality health care, therapy, and medication.

Of course, in the end, the diabolical act of wickedness allegedly committed by Jared Loughner is his blame most fully to assume. But any of us who call ourselves Christians and are claimed by God in our baptisms cannot sit back passively with a space station perspective while the world spirals in sin. Simply put, our baptism will not allow us this option. We have no choice but to resist.

Yesterday, Jim Wallis, founder of the Christian social action group Sojourners, published an article that frames an alternative for any Christian wishing to take his or her baptism seriously in a world of such brokenness. He calls for Christians to form a new kind of community:

A central calling for Christians is to be peacemakers. Peace, we understand, is not simply the absence of current conflict, but the presence of a just community. In the midst of tragedy and violence, I believe this means every Christian must ask themselves: "How am I responsible?" What more can we do to bring peace to this world as the Prince of Peace has called us to do? What are the situations and environments that allow this kind of hate and violence to grow? How can I not only stop conflict, but also be a part of bringing about a just community that displays the positive presence of peace?

As many have already said, we must honor this tragic event and Gabby's national service by reflecting deeply on how we speak to and about one another, and how we create environments that help peace grow, or allow violence and hatred to enter. Many of us who would never consider violence of the fist have been guilty of violence in our hearts and with our tongues. We need to be able to relate to others with whom we disagree on important issues without calling them evil. The words we say fall upon the balanced and unbalanced, stable and unstable, the well-grounded and the unhinged, alike.

Yes, in the words of Commander Scott Kelly, “we can do better than this.” We do not need to sit idly by while a world filled with evil, injustice, and oppression suffers senseless tragedy. The church is called by God to embody the message and vision of Jesus Christ, and to carry hope to a hurting world. We have the freedom and power to make it happen, and it is work we must do.

Our baptism will not allow us to do otherwise.

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] http://www.kold.com/Global/story.asp?S=13824041
[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/10/opinion/10collins.html

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-wallis/an-attack-on-the-soul-of_b_807020.html

We continue in our sermon series “Living Your Baptism” with a sermon titled, “Renounce, Reject, and Repent.” It will be based on Romans 6:1-14, which is Paul’s call for us to live and die with Christ.

The United Methodist Women will be conducting their annual recognition ceremony this Sunday. During that time, you will learn more about the UMW as they extend an invitation to all women of the church to participate. In addition, some members of our congregation will be receiving special recognition from the UMW for their contributions to the ministries of the church.

We begin a new year of giving toward our Rainbow Covenant Missions program with a special offering toward Human Relations Sunday.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Zambonis and Baptism

January 5, 2011

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

It has been at least twenty-five years since I last wore a pair of ice skates, which should have been no surprise to those at The Depot in Minneapolis last Thursday night. While vacationing in Minnesota, Jessica and I took the girls on their first ice skating excursion, choosing a renovated train station that has become a popular venue for those looking for a night of smooth gliding.

I’ll save you the particulars of how I did; suffice it to say that while I didn’t fall once, I did a lot more rail hugging than pirouetting, and I was lapped by skaters half my height and a fifth my age. I did manage to skate hand-in-hand with both our girls and with my wife, so the night was, overall, a lovely success.

During one of the break periods, we sat and watched the zamboni resurface the rink. Madelyn and Grace were mesmerized as the giant machine slowly, steadily, drove around the oval, in concentric patterns, working over the roughed up ice. They asked me how zambonies worked, so I masked my ignorance with an answer only Calvin’s dad could appreciate. I explained that a blade smoothes out the ice’s sharp edges cut up by the skaters’ blades. A spray squirts a thin layer of hot water that coats over nicks and the cuts, and freezes to form a new layer on top. I have no idea how it all works, but we could all see the result: a fresh looking, smooth-as-silk surface, ready to be enjoyed.

Preachers are always seem to be on the lookout for sermon illustrations that can come from any source at any time. With Baptism of the Lord Sunday in a few days, I thought about how the waters of baptism and the work of God’s grace function a lot like that zamboni. Granted, I know little more about how baptism works than a zamboni, but it’s all still a mystery. There’s something about the waters of baptism that eliminates the harsh, worn consequences of sin in our lives and washes us with a fresh, clean layer of new life and new possibility. It draws together a community, inviting people to join in a mutual experience of joy and harmony.

At my previous church, the clergy team offered a monthly baptism class. I taught the first one, having been just a few years removed from seminary. I came to the class prepared with an army of school notes, textbooks, and historical documents. I was ready to impart a graduate-level crash course on sacramental theology.

So when someone asked the question, “What does baptism mean?” I opened the intellectual floodgates. I gave a five-fold answer. Complete with support from Wesley’s sermons, the Nicene Creed, and my seminary textbooks. My answer was complete, articulate, and magnificent.

Then I looked at their faces. Glazed looks. Fingers drumming on tabletops. Eyes on wristwatches. After a long silence, someone turned to the other associate pastor and said, sheepishly, “Um, Bernie? What do you think baptism means?”

Bernie’s response was seasoned with many years of common sense and an economy of words: “At the moment of baptism, God looks at you and says, ‘You are mine. I made you and I claim you. The world will try to get its hands on you, but I will never let you go. You are my child.’”

It’s still the finest definition of baptism I’ve ever heard.

This Sunday, join us for Baptism of the Lord Sunday, when we’ll gather at the baptismal font, remember our baptism, and reaffirm our baptismal vows. And we’ll hear the words of God to each of us: “You are my child, my beloved. In you I am well-pleased.”

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

We are delighted to welcome the gospel choir “Consecrated” from Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Sioux City. This choir has grown to up to 80 voices since its creation thirty years ago. They have performed before President Obama, dignitaries at the Iowa Governor’s Mansion, and recently performed its first live recording at the beautiful Orpheum Theatre in Sioux City. Join us at 2:00 in our sanctuary for this powerful concert, where we will be receiving a free-will offering.

After this Sunday’s service, join us downstairs in the Fellowship Hall for a brunch featuring the music of the Aurelia Jazz Band. It is offered to the community, as part of the Cherokee Jazz and Blues Festival. A free will offering will be taken.