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

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Why I Shaved My Head Today

Dear St. Paul's Family,

A number of you told me this week that you weren't going to be in church today, and were hoping to receive a manuscript of this morning's message. So here is the sermon in full, including word about the "special change" that happened to me at the end of the service. Have a wonderful summer!


“United, But Not Uniform”

June 19, 2011

Genesis 1-2

Trinity Sunday is the only holy day in the Christian year based on an idea, not an event. It is a biblical idea, even though the word trinity is not found anywhere in the Bible. Instead, church theologians have used passages like today's scripture lesson to develop some understanding of how three could equal one.

Notice the pronouns: When God creates human beings, God said “Let us make humankind in our image.” The church has traditionally interpreted those words as support for a God who existed in a plurality: one God in three persons. Somehow, at the beginning of the world, there was an "us"-ness to God, a quality which became infused into every human being.

The trinity is a part of all of us.

Of course, we don't fully understand how this trinity idea works. It is, by its very nature, irrational and mysterious. But what we do know about God is two-fold:

· First, each person in the Godhead is unique; each one is distinct from the other two.

· Second, they are all related to each other as one; they are one substance together.

They are unique, yet joined together; different, but the same. God the Creator is different from the Love revealed in Jesus, which is different still from the Spirit who guides and strengthens. Yet they are all the same God. All together as one.

Admittedly, this is all mind-numbing stuff, which is why I would prefer not to try to explain it you. Instead, I wish to look for ways for us to live it out. For if we are made in the image of God, as Genesis 1 suggests, then what does it mean to live in the image of the Trinity?

Here's the key: to live with the image of the Trinity is to live with that same kind of mysterious balance between 1) being distinct from everyone else, and 2) being related to everyone else as one. It is to see your life as one that is both “one of a kind,” but also just like the rest of humanity.

It seems to me that this is the critical question for us, and particularly for me, as I begin my renewal: How can you find the balance between celebrating your unique individuality and sharing yourself fully relationship with others?

First, a diagnosis. I think part of what ails our society today is that we tend to focus on of those ideas at the expense of the other. At the risk of sounding too simplistic, I think we might see people as fitting into one of two groups.

First, some of us work really hard to stand out from the crowd, to develop skills, personas, identities, and roles that draw attention to how distinctive we are. People like this know themselves so fully and so well that they don't take the time to learn about people who are different from themselves, to see how there might be commonalities among them.

Then, there is the second group of people. Those who just want to fit in. These are the people who seek out others who are just like themselves, to the point that they lose all knowledge of who they really are, where they came from, and what they can be. These are people who only associate with folks who look them, think like them, speak like them, vote like them, worship like them, and believe like them. All at the expense of finding what is truly unique about them.

I would suggest to you that so much of what makes our culture today so polarized, uncivil, and so segregated is that people, communities, and even churches fail to live in the image of the Trinity. They fail to celebrate both their uniqueness and their commonality. For in the Kingdom of a God who is Trinity, we don’t get to choose one or the other.

We are united, but we are not uniform.

That is the theological premise behind the next twelve weeks of my grant-funded study. It is a chance for me to explore how churches like St. Paul’s can be a congregation who welcomes a diversity of people by first appreciating themselves as unique individuals created in God’s image.

During this summer, that lesson for all of us begins with me. And I have to admit, that is the part that makes me both most excited and most nervous about the next twelve weeks.

I’d like to share with you some things about my childhood that I have never shared in public. I grew up in a predominately white, middle-class suburb of St. Petersburg, Florida in the 1970’s. We were one of the first ethnic minority families to move into our neighborhood, and I went to a school where I was basically one of a handful of ethnic kids in the entire school, and the only one in my class.

At first, I struggled to live a compartmentalized life. There was my life at home, where I ate rice at every meal, learned Filipino songs, and heard Tagalog, the Filipino language, all the time from my parents. Then, during the day, there was my school life, learning to speak, think, write, and live in English.

At times, that convergence of cultures was confusing to me. Sometimes my thoughts were in Tagalog, and I had to translate them into English. This often resulted in using both languages in the same sentence, usually with comical results.

It was clear to the other kids that I was very different. I didn’t quite fit in, with the way I looked, the way I acted, and the way I spoke. So it didn’t last long for other boys in the class to start teasing me. At times, it was harmless giggling. Other times, it became name-calling, taunting, and downright bullying. They would tell stories behind my back, not invite me to play games, or, worst of all, pretending I didn’t exist. It wasn’t all the kids who did this, of course, but there were enough of them.

And I still remember their names to this day.

It’s tough to go through that at any age, but especially when you’re a little kid, so I had to make a sad choice: if I wanted to fit in, then I had to lose what made me special.

From that moment on, I decided not to speak any more Tagalog. So, today, even though I can understand Tagalog fluently, I can speak English a lot better. Truthfully, this has served me very well in my career, as folks generally don’t complain about not being able to understand me. I have even debated changing my name to something more Americanized, which is something my dad did when he came to the states. Thankfully, I did not.

But talking like the other kids didn’t change the way I looked. I couldn’t change my skin color, and I couldn’t do anything about the shape of my eyes. But there was something that I believed I could change. Something that could help me fit in.

I could do something with my hair.

I have Asian hair. Hair that sort of flops down straight in every direction, like a mop head. We used to joke that my dad gave us haircuts by sticking a bowl on my head and trimming around it. I had bangs that hung down to my eyes, and it was something that none of the other kids had.

So, in third grade, I decided to start parting my hair to one side, sweeping my hair to the right, showing off as much forehead as I thought the white kids had. The problem, of course, is that my hair didn’t stay that way naturally. So I started using hair spray every morning and fussing with it for ten minutes. I wouldn’t get it wet in the showers after P.E. I was careful to adjust it throughout the day.

And that’s how I made it through school, college…

….and even today.

The bullying stopped somewhere around third grade. It had nothing to do with my hair, of course, but subconsciously I thought it did. I became not only accepted, but quite popular, not because of my hair, but because of my kindness, my with, my intelligence, and my charm.

But, even to this day, on a subconscious level, I keep my hair the same to ward off the bullies, to fit in, and to deny who I really am.

With all that said, I can’t tell you how important it is for me to go on these trips with my family. With the exception of a few weeks when I was two years old, I have never been to the country of my roots, immersed in the land where everyone looks like me. And Jessica has never been to the Netherlands. And the girls have never really been in touch with their ethnic roots as biracial children.

And that’s kind of sad. Sad for any one who wants so desperately to fit in that they forget that the first step in accepting people who are different is being comfortable with you are.

That’s why the Lilly Endowment fully funded this project for the church. If St. Paul’s is going to become open to people who are different from us, because they’re from another country or speak another language, or are even from another town, the place to begin is to celebrate what makes us each beautiful in God’s eyes.

The more you come to accept yourself as the unique person God has made you to be, then the less you will find others to be threat. And understand, even though my story has to do with a few white kids who were intolerant, I don’t see this at all as a “whites only” problem. There’s no need to blame just one group of people for this. I have prejudice in my heart that I have to work through, just as people of all skin colors can do a better job getting over their biases. The problem of prejudice really knows no skin color.

And this is not just about ethnicity. It is about getting along with people who think differently from you, act differently, worship differently, vote differently, and believe differently.

Ultimately, it all starts with each of us finding a balance between our uniqueness and our commonalities. To live the Trinitarian image within us.

So, there’s one more thing I need to do to be ready for these next twelve weeks.

(Take out hair clippers.)

I think it’s time to get rid of this hair.

There’s no need for any of us to try to earn our acceptance in God’s eyes. And there should be no reason for me to want to look like everyone else in order to feel accepted. That’s what I’ve done for years, hiding behind an obviously receding hairline and thinning scalp, pretending that I’m something that I’m not. So, in a few moments, during the Offertory, I’ve asked Karla Wilkie, one of our town’s hair stylists, to come up and shave me down.

And I hope this will be a reminder to all of us, especially myself, that we are each fearfully and wonderfully made. You do not need to be afraid of people who are different from you, because you can be comfortable in the way that God made you.

And when I come back, we’ll talk some more about what it means to be a church open and welcoming to new people, recognizing that all of us are God’s children, united, but not uniform.

In the name of our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, Amen.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Good-Bye, But Not Farewell

June 14, 2011

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

A week from today, my family and I will be boarding a direct flight from Minneapolis to Amsterdam, to begin my twelve-week, grant-funded study leave. Lately, I’ve been feeling an odd confluence of excitement and apprehension. The reasons for the former are simple: It’s a chance to step away from the routine of ministry (which is recommended in the Discipline for pastors every six years), it’s an opportunity to experience an all-expense paid trip to some remarkable countries, and it’s a time for rest, renewal, and recreation.

But I’m also hesitant. As a worker by nature, I don’t often know what to do with extended periods of personal time, and I’ll have to adjust to life without the reliable routines of Sunday-to-Sunday. After all, I’m in the people business, and doggone it, I really like being your pastor. I’ll miss our daily and weekly interactions, the sound of your laughter, and the generative power of our worshipping together.

But the greater uncertainty that I feel lies in the subject of my study. Unlike a normal continuing education experience, in which I study topics such as more effective ways to do ministry, or the latest theological innovations, or current trends in Christianity and culture, the subject of my time away is, well, me. And my family.

As you know, the goal of this whole project is to come to a better understanding of the complexities and blessings of what it means for me to be an American citizen of Filipino descent, married to a woman of Dutch origin, with multiracial children. To come to that understanding, I’ll be dusting off long-neglected memories, uncovering hidden aspects of my past, and rooting up some parts of my heritage that I’ve never really acknowledged. I’ll meet cousins, aunts, and uncles that I’ve only heard about, be immersed in cultures where everyone looks like me (The Philippines) and where no one looks like me (The Netherlands).

Along the way, I’ll be prayerfully exploring ways for another kind of family – this church family – can learn to coexist with all of its beautiful, chaotic diversities. The underlying premise for this project is that the same principles that the deVega family can learn to celebrate its differences and focus on its commonalities are the same principles that a church can use to be more open to different ethnicities, perspectives, and backgrounds.

That’s why I’m excited. It will be a kind of work that I’ve never done before in my fourteen years of ministry: deep introspection, mixed with dramatic cultural immersion, with intentional focus on a critical area of survival for the mainline church. But it will be work done with deliberate rest, intentional connection to family, all in the context of some of the most beautiful locales in the world.

(Did I mention that one of my uncles is taking us up a jungle trail to the top of a volcano? And that I might get to preach in a family member’s village church? And that some members of one of my former churches is taking us on a canal boat tour in Amsterdam?)


This Sunday will likely be one of my most personal, most autobiographical sermons to date, as I go further in unpacking for you why this renewal means so much to me, my family, and the church that I love. I’d love it if you came to worship so I can thank you personally for your love, support, and well-wishes as I say good-bye until September 11. (And let me reiterate: when I come back, I still plan on being your pastor, for the foreseeable future!!)

In the meantime, here are some ways that you can be praying for us over the next several weeks:

· Pray for safety as we travel, with no major disruptions to our itinerary. You can pray for an uneventful eight hours to Amsterdam, as well as the whopping twenty-four hours to the Philippines. And since the girls display a lot more patience on super-long plane fights than their parents, you can pray that Mom and Dad don’t go stir crazy in the flight cabin!

· Pray for our health. We won’t go into the list of possible illnesses we could contract while we’re there, since we’re trying not to think about it. We’d rather just have a good time and come back whole and healthy. Oh, and you can pray for a steady recovery from all the jet lag!

· Pray that the four of us will draw closer together as a family. It is truly rare for a young family like ours, with kids our girls’ ages, to have a chance to have an experience like this. I’m not sure what this might look like, but there’s every possibility that this can show us how to love, respect, appreciate, and affirm one another more than ever before. Please pray that all of that will happen between me and Jessica, for our relationship to our daughters, and for these two cute little ducklings that call themselves siblings.

· Pray for St. Paul’s. I have absolutely no reservations about leaving your pastoral responsibilities in the capable hands of Rev. Ron Kitterman. (If anything, you may learn to like him better.) But you can pray that whatever I experience overseas and what you experience here in Cherokee over the next three months will lead us to even more clarity and enthusiasm about the future God has for us. When I get back, it will be full steam ahead, and I can’t wait to see what we accomplish together!

You might want to know that I plan on writing a few new editions of this Mid-Week Message throughout the summer. But part of this renewal will include stepping away from the regular routine of writing these weekly, though I’ll want to be in touch with you a few times with some of the things I am experiencing and learning. Those will be joyous occasions to tell you how we’re doing.


In case you’re wondering about our itinerary, here’s a quick outline:

Sunday, June 19: Last Sunday in the Pulpit
Tuesday, June 21: Depart for Amsterdam
Wednesday, June 29: Depart Amsterdam via Train for London
Saturday, July 2: Depart London for U.S.
Starting July 2: Time with Family and Friends in Minnesota (Jessica’s American roots)
July 16: Depart for Manila
July 27: Return from the Philippines
Starting July 28: Time with Family and Friends in Florida (My American roots)
August 11: Kids Return to School
Magrey Spends Remaining Weeks Recovering, Studying, Reflecting, and Writing
Sunday, September 11: First Sunday back in the Pulpit

And here’s a quick word about Rev. Ron Kitterman. He’ll be in the office starting the week of June 20, and I’ll share with you all this Sunday what his anticipated days and hours in the office will be. He will be able to cover all pastoral emergencies as they arise, and you can reach him by contacting the church office. He already has a handful of weddings and memorial services scheduled at the church, and he will be providing excellent worship leadership and pastoral care for you, based on his decades of effective, beloved ministry in the Iowa Conference. He will make his cell phone available to you in cases of critical, urgent emergencies, and you can reach him through his new St. Paul’s UMC e-mail address, at rkitterman@cherokeespumc.org
<mailto:rkitterman@cherokeespumc.org> . You will want to come this Sunday to formally welcome him and his wife Mary Lou to the St. Paul’s Summer Family.

Finally, this is great time to remind you that your membership commitment to prayers, presence, gifts, and service really does matter this summer! We thank God that we are in great shape heading into this summer regarding our financial giving, membership, and worship attendance. We have gained 32 members so far this year (a number of them by profession of faith!), and we are a few thousand dollars ahead of expenses right now (the first time we’ve started the summer this way in my time as your pastor.) Nonetheless, we know that the summer is a time for busy folks to go away for their own renewal, so please continue to remember St. Paul’s over the next three months. Come to worship as often as you can, and please make arrangements to fulfill your stewardship commitments either by mail or through automatic check withdrawal. You can contact our Financial Secretary Sarah Cook for more information on setting this up.

Now, more than ever, I am grateful for the privilege of serving as your pastor, and for the chance to have this once-in-a-lifetime, transformative opportunity. I can’t wait to see what our future holds in ministry together.

Grace, Peace, and Love,


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

Wow! That’s the best way to capture what we’ve been experiencing so far with the 70 children in this year’s Vacation Bible School. Thanks to Korrie Waldner and her great leadership team, the first day of VBS happened without a hitch, and there’s a high level of energy and joy as we steam through the week. You will not want to miss a taste of what we’re experiencing when you come to worship this Sunday. And you’ll have a chance to match the children’s daily contributions to the Bishop’s FIT Challenge, which funds disaster relief to the Iowa communities devastated by recent tornadoes and that will be affected by the rising waters of the Missouri River. God’s Love has really been in Action this week. Come and see for yourself!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Charles Wesley's Day of Pentecost

June 7, 2011

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

United Methodists are quite familiar with John Wesley’s “Aldersgate” experience, but know less about a similar moment in the life of his younger brother Charles. On Pentecost Sunday, 1738, 30 year old Charles was deathly ill, suffering from a near-fatal case of pneumonia. Additionally, and more significantly, Charles was suffering from a serious spiritual ailment: a severe bout with doubt and a need for assurance of his salvation. Lying on his death bed and slipping in and out of consciousness, he noticed a woman named Mrs. Musgrave, a family friend, enter his room. She said to him, “In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, I tell you, arise and believe, and you shall be healed of your infirmities.” The woman then left the room.

At that moment, Charles awoke from his slumber and felt a “strange palpitation” in his heart. His pneumonia began to clear, and he was also able to claim, for the first time, a solid assurance of his salvation. He uttered the words, “I believe. I do believe.” When he later saw Mrs. Musgrave and asked her why she came into the room and to say what she said, she had no recollection of that event.

It is no wonder, then, why Charles henceforth esteemed the Day of Pentecost. For him, it became more than a liturgical observance in the Christian year, and more than a narrative from the pages of biblical history. It also marked that moment when he became more than a professing Christian, but a committed follower of Jesus as well, guided and shaped by the Holy Spirit. He considered “Pentecost” to be the stage in a believer’s journey of grace in which the Holy Spirit transformed that individual more and more into the image of Christ.

In short, for Charles Wesley, Pentecost was Sanctification.

So naturally, he wrote a hymn about it. In fact, he wrote thirty-two, compiled in 1746 as a songbook titled, Hymns of Petition and Thanksgiving for the Promise of the Father. It begins with these verses, from a song simply titled, Hymn 1:

The purchased Comforter is given,
For Jesus is returned to heaven,
To claim, and then THE GRACE impart:
Our day of Pentecost is come,
And God vouchsafes to fix his home
In every poor expecting heart.


Charles advanced his love affair with Pentecost so often to his older brother that John Wesley acknowledged it in a journal entry On October 28, 1762:

“Many years ago my brother frequently said, Your day of Pentecost is not fully come; but I doubt not it will; and you will then hear of persons sanctified, as frequently as you do now of persons justified; and any unprejudiced reader may observe that it was now fully come.”

In other words, Charles constantly reminded John that the results of effective ministry never stop at a person’s conversion, and the work of our churches should be more than just adding new members. Instead, every ministry ought to have “Days of Pentecost,” seasons in which people became more committed to Christ, and strove to go deeper in their discipleship than mere lip service or superficial piety. Charles had no doubt that in their renewal efforts, there would come a time when the number of persons sanctified would at least match the number of people justified, and that would truly be a moment to celebrate.

John Wesley would heed his brother’s encouragement, and would even couch the fruitful results of his ministry in terms that echo the Pentecost story in Acts 2. Whereas Luke the history writer would claim conversions among the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and Pamphlyians, Wesley shared these words, reflecting on the work of the Spirit throughout the British Islands.

“Here began that glorious work of sanctification, which had been at a stand for twenty years. But from time to time it spread, first through various parts of Yorkshire, afterwards in London, then through most parts of England; next through Dublin, Limerick, and all the south and West of Ireland. And wherever the work of sanctification increased the whole work of God increased in all its branches. Many were convinced of sin, many justified, many backsliders healed.” [2]


Revisiting these rich stories from our Wesleyan roots reminds me of the many reasons I consider Pentecost to be my favorite Christian holy day. Unlike Christmas and Easter, retailers have yet to commercialize Pentecost with trinkets, greeting cards, lawn decorations, and sale circulars. It is also the very point in the biblical narrative that we enter the story most vividly. God’s revelation to the early church of Acts is the very same way God is revealed to us today: through the invisible, yet undeniable, power and promise of the Holy Spirit at work in and among us.

But Charles Wesley’s affection for Pentecost ought to add a deeper dimension to our understanding of what this Sunday is all about. It is an invitation for us to allow the Spirit to deepen our commitment to discipleship, to shape our perspectives, priorities, and behaviors around the person of Jesus Christ.

It is my prayer that this Sunday’s Pentecost service will afford you the opportunity to experience the sanctifying, purifying grace of God revealed to the church through wind and flame. Join us as we hear this glorious, vivid story from Acts 2, and experience the Holy Spirit at work in and through our lives.

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] A free online version of Hymns for Whit-Sunday is available from Google books.
[2] From Wesley’s Concise Ecclesiastical History

At our Annual Conference in Des Moines last Sunday evening, clergy and lay delegates from the Northwest and Southwest Districts gathered to strategize response and relief efforts for the communities affected by the rising flood waters of the Missouri River. At this point, our district and conference disaster response coordinators are working with local emergency management officials to work within the systems already in place to address this imminent need.

As we await word of what we will be asked to do in response, you can already begin preparing items that you might wish to donate. Cleaning supplies, such as mops, gloves, bleach, rags, and sponges can be gathered and kept at your home until such time as we send word for you to bring them to the church. We’ll then find a way to get them to the distribution site in Sioux City. Also, there will be a need for bottled water for the volunteers that will be working there in the heat of the summer sun. Again, keep those at your home until we ask for them. Finally, there will certainly be a need for volunteers to work on mucking out the flooded homes and businesses once we are given word that it is safe to do so. This can be a powerful way you could put God’s love into action by contributing even half a day for the cause. Let’s all be in prayer, and be ready to respond.

We are excited to have 66 children registered for next week’s Vacation Bible School! Please be in prayer for the kids and the adult volunteers as we experience God’s love through fun songs, lessons, and activities. If you wish, we are still in need of gallons of fruit juices for the kids throughout the week. And, the children will be taking up an offering every day for the “Bishop’s FIT Challenge” which will fund relief efforts for the towns in Iowa devastated by tornadoes and the communities facing rising flood waters. You’ll have a chance to match their contributions with a special offering on June 19.

To view past editions of the Mid-Week Message, visit http://mdevega.blogspot.com
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