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

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Somewhere in the World

September 27, 2011

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

Stop me if you heard this one:  a Jewish rabbi, a Methodist minister, and a Missouri Synod Lutheran walk into a classroom….

Nope, it’s not a joke, but the setting for one of my favorite highlights of every fall. Under the invitation of Dr. Bruce Forbes, professor of religion at Morningside College, I participated in a panel discussion last week for his Science and Religion class.  On my left was Rabbi Guy Green, of the Congregation Beth Shalom.  On my right was Dr. Sharon Ocker, a retired professor of Education and lay member of the St. Paul’s Lutheran church.  And there I was, in the middle, both physically and ideologically, between a reformed Jewish mystic and a conservative, seven-day-creation literalist.

The students aptly identified our different perspectives on the relationship between faith and science, leading one woman in particular to ask what was, to me, the most poignant question of the night.

“I’ve listened to your positions,” she said, “and I’m wondering why there have to be such differences in what you believe.  It seems to me that Christians and Jews, conservatives and liberals, have so much more in common than different.  Why is there so much division among people of faith?”

My first response was to agree with her.  Yes, I affirmed.  Western religions all essentially come from the same family tree, as monotheistic descendants of Abraham that hold many of the same scriptures as sacred. And certainly within Christian denominations, it should not be unreasonable to expect more unity and less fractious debate.  Despite our denominational differences, we are one church, under one Lord, with one mission, even though our behavior and our rhetoric sometimes suggest otherwise.

I noted her nod of approval and even detected some relief, which she later admitted came from some difficult talks she has had with her somewhat dogmatic grandmother.  I was quite ready at that point to stop talking, allowing the other two presenters to have their say, when I blurted out an epilogue.

“But…” I said. “But, now that I think about it, I should say that it’s okay to have our differences, too.”

I explained that because religious convictions are so deeply personal, expressions of faith cannot help but be  influenced by one’s culture, geography, and ethnicity.  It would be difficult, even improper, to expect people around the world to worship and believe in God in exactly the same way.  And while we  may hold many of the same central doctrinal tenets, our nuanced positions can just as easily be a reflection of a God who is personally revealed to us in a variety of ways.


This reminder comes on the threshold of yet another World Communion Sunday, when we observe our shared connection with Christians all around the globe.  We’ll gather around the communion table to celebrate our unity in Christ with people near and far, whom we will likely never meet. But we will also celebrate the wonderful differences throughout the church that make us the rich, textured tapestry that we are:

Think about it. This Sunday, as we gather to worship in the way we have become comfortably accustomed, people will be glorifying that same Jesus Christ in ways utterly unfamiliar to us:

Somewhere in Greece, an orthodox priest will walk down the aisle of the sanctuary swinging a censer, carrying burning, aromatic incense.  Its billowing waft will remind people that their prayers are being lfited up to heaven.

Somewhere in Siberia, a group of Sakha Christians will sing an olonkho, a heroic epic poem set to music that recounts the wondrous stories of the first three chapters of Genesis.

Somewhere in the Burgundy region of France, the Taize community will gather to sing the songs that have garnered them international intention:  simple melodic chants based on Scripture, and sung in canon.

Somewhere in Moscow, worshippers in a Russian Orthodox Church will sit in a sanctuary filled with beautiful icons, pictures that portray saints and sacred stories, drawing people into a focused celebration of the faith.

Somewhere in India, Christians will sing a bhajan, a beautiful devotional song repeated like a haunting, lyrical mantra.

And somewhere in Togo in western Africa, Christians celebrate the New Testament in a formation similar to country line dancing.   With their hips and torsos shaking in perfect synchronism, they worship God with passion and energy.

It is great to know that just as our common creeds unite us together, our rich differences speak of a God of wonderful variety.  World Communion Sunday is a vivid reminder of John’s vision recorded in Revelation 7:9-10: After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’

So join us this Sunday, and let’s celebrate being part of that great multitude!

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
Email:  mdevega@sp-umc.org

Once again, please note the new e-mail contacts for the church office:
Magrey’s email is mdevega@sp-umc.
Administrative Assistant Andrea Cook’s new e-mail is acook@sp-umc.org.
And the new address for the church inbox is church@sp-umc.org.
These changes took place effective last Wednesday, and the old addresses are no longer active.

Thanks to all of you who helped make last Sunday’s pork feed another great success.  The Parkers once again provided some delicious grilled pork tenderloins, and the Adult Class and Finance Committee did a wonderful job setting up and serving.  Thanks to all of you who provided salads, as we were able to raise close to $1,000 for the Building Renovation Fund.  Thanks!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Joy from the Balcony Seats

September 20, 2011

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

Rarely did a week go by during my childhood that I didn’t catch the latest episode of Siskel & Ebert’s At the Movies. The thirty-minute program featured critiques of the latest films by Gene Siskel, movie critic of the Chicago Tribune, and Roger Ebert, of the Chicago Sun-Times. If you ever watched their show, you know the entertainment value of their program was not just in hearing their thoughts on Hollywood’s latest offerings. Like hockey fans who enjoy the brawls and NASCAR spectators who love the crashes, I looked forward to the spirited, often heated debates between these two men who transformed the way we watched and evaluated movies.

When Gene Siskel died of complications from a brain tumor in 1999, the show went on hiatus, and, despite efforts to revive it with other critics, it was never the same. Recently, Roger Ebert has endured multiple cancerous attacks to his thyroid, salivary gland, and lower jaw, and the ensuing surgeries have left him facially disfigured and unable to talk.


Recently, Ebert released his memoir Life Itself, which I promptly picked up on Friday and have been unable to put down. Though his speaking ability has vanished, his mastery of the language has not. He continues to write a column for the Tribune, and commands a growing audience for his online blog. His memoir is partly a collection of his blog entries, in which he remembers the first movie he ever watched, the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races (“I had to stand to see the screen. I’d never heard Daddy laugh more loudly.”) as well as his first job as a high school sports reporter for the Urbana News-Gazette (“To be hired as a real writer at a real newspaper was such good fortune that I could scarcely sleep.”). He recounts one of his three interviews with the legendary John Wayne (“He sounded the way he looked. He was a small-town Iowa boy, a college football player. He wasn’t a sex symbol. He didn’t perform, he embodied.”) and his memories of Gene Siskel (“He’s in my mind almost every day. He became less like a friend than like a brother.”)

Though he is currently free of terminal illness, his life has changed forever. This lifelong logophile and master of words is now unable to speak a single one of them. A man who became a television fixture in many homes is now virtually unrecognizable from his illness. Yet, the true beauty of his memoir is in the way it captures the amazing spirit with which Ebert continues to live out his days. In “Go Gently,” one of the final chapters of his book, he reflects on his own mortality and acknowledges that he has fewer years ahead of him than behind. Still, he chooses to live with an indomitable courage, an undaunted optimism, and an unfailing joy:

I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.


I can’t think of a better quote to use as an entry point into this Sunday’s worship service, as Ebert’s story has a pitch-perfect connection to our sermon series on Philippians. Paul, in a jail cell and facing what he very well knew could be his final days, managed to write a letter of unshakable joy. Though his message predates Ebert’s by more than 2,000 years, they jointly attest to the possibilities of unbridled enthusiasm and unwavering courage in the face of hardship:

For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again. (1:23-26)

This Sunday, we’ll take a closer look at the conscious decision you and I can make to choose joy over our adversities. We will hear more about the life and witness of the Apostle Paul, and see how his unyielding commitment to the gospel gave him opportunities to minister even to the guards in his prison cell. I’ll share with you another story from my travels to the Philippines, about my mother’s cousin, Boy Rojas, and his ability to choose joy despite his circumstances.


One of last chapters in Ebert’s memoir is titled, “How I Believe in God,” in which he talks about his views on faith, Christianity, the church, and how his spiritual life has changed over time since his Catholic upbringing. Among his thoughts:

I prefer vertical prayer, directed up toward heaven, rather than horizontal prayer, directed sideways toward me. I believe a worthy church must grow through attraction, not promotion. I am wary of zealotry; even as a child I was suspicious of those who, as I often heard, were “more Catholic than the pope.” If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, we must regard their beliefs with the same respect our own deserve.

It is in that same spirit, of becoming a church of “attraction” and not of “promotion,” that I invite us to come together in joy and be a witness for a world hurting and in need. Join us this Sunday and invite a friend, as we continue to journey through Paul’s remarkable letter to Philippi, and feel your soul uplifted for the living of your days.

Grace, Peace, and Joy!


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

Yes, it’s that time of year again! Join us after church on Sunday, September 25, for our annual Pork Feed, featuring the delicious flavor-injected pork tenderloins from the Parker family. You are invited to bring salads to share, and desserts and beverages will be provided. A free will donation will be accepted, and all of the proceeds will support our building renovation fund.

Prospective small group leaders are encouraged to attend a training workshop on Small Group Ministry, either on September 23 at Wesley UMC in Sioux City or September 24 at Alta UMC. Registration is $5, and the schedule goes from 9:00 to 4:00pm. Lunch is provided. The event is led by a staff member of Ginghamsburg UMC in Ohio, one of the largest Methodist churches in the country.

To view past editions of the Mid-Week Message, visit http://mdevega.blogspot.com
For more information about St. Paul's United Methodist Church, visit our website at http://www.cherokeespumc.org
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Monday, September 12, 2011

A Life of True Joy

September 13, 2011

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

You don’t need to be a movie connoisseur to know that computer technology has dramatically changed the movie industry in the last twenty-five years. Gone are the cheesy plastic models and claymation figures, replaced instead with stunning computer generated imagery (CGI) that blurs the line between the real and the manufactured. Even animated films have veered away from traditional hand drawings and moved toward eye-popping scenes that look stunningly realistic. I’ll never forget watching
Toy Story
, Pixar Animation Studios’ first big blockbuster hit in 1995: when I wasn’t laughing at the jokes or enjoying the characters, I was scooping my jaw off the ground at the breathtaking animation.


But even as amazing as CGI can be, it has its limitations. It’s one thing to make cartoon toys look real, but industry experts would say that there is still one thing that computers cannot render realistically: the human face. Try as they might, computer animators have yet to draw a fully expressive, natural looking face. It remains the elusive holy grail of the animation world.

There are a number of reasons for this difficulty. For one thing, it is virtually impossible, even for the most powerful computers and most creative designers, to accurately capture the seamless interplay of the forty-four muscles used by a person to control one’s facial features. Those muscles are capable of creating some 5,000 different expressions, all in fluid, real time. That’s why the human faces in even some of the most stunning animated films still look more plasticized than personalized.

But human expressions are even deeper than muscles and skin. Emotions are not just described by how they are expressed on the surface; they are defined by one’s innermost feelings, responses, and convictions. The human face is beautifully complex, not because of the emotions it can express, but because of the deeply set feelings it can emit. And there’s no computer in the world that can accurately render that.

The great twentieth century French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre took these considerations one step further. He said that a person’s face is not only an accurate reflection of one’s innermost feelings. It can also be, at its best, a reflection of the transcendent. In his essay “The Face,” Sartre wrote,

"If I watch his eyes, I see that they are not fastened in his head, serene like agate marbles. They are being created at each moment by what they look at….If we call transcendence the ability of the mind to pass beyond itself and all other things as well, to escape from itself that it may lose itself elsewhere; then to be a visible transcendence is the meaning of a face."

No wonder the human face has been the holy grail of the CGI industry. There are some expressions that simply cannot be manufactured.


The Apostle Paul may have known this when writing to the church in Philippi about the spiritual attribute of joy. Throughout the four brief chapters that constitute the book of Philippians, Paul describes nearly every dimension of a Christian’s joyful life, separating joy from mere happiness, and encouraging people to live a life that leads to contentment, confidence, and courage. Many have called Philippians the most joyful book in the Bible, and as we use it as our guide over the next two months, you’ll discover for yourself the secrets to the elusive, “holy grail” kind of life that you have been craving. Paul’s lessons on joy will bring to you what no computer animator could ever create: a life of true joy.

And do you want to know the most amazing part of Paul’s writing? He wrote this whole letter – this entire treatise on true joy – from the confines of a dark, dank prison cell. How about that? He was able to describe joy in the most miserable setting imaginable. And right out of the gate, at the outset of the letter, Paul wrote with a gratitude utterly contradictory to his surroundings:

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.

Just as Sartre declared that the transcendent can be visible on our faces, Paul proclaimed that Christ is at work in our lives, sanctifying us as individuals and drawing us together in community. And nothing – not even the traumas that befall us on the outside – can prevent Christ’s work from being completed. That’s good news!

That’s the subject of this Sunday’s sermon, the first in our new series, simply titled,
“Joy! A Journey through the Bible’s Most Joyful Book.”
We’ll begin with a sermon titled, “Why is This Man Smiling?” based on Philippians 1:1-11. I would invite you to prepare for worship by simply reading the four short chapters of Philippians for yourself, and experience the whole of this book’s message for yourself. It is filled with some of the most often memorized and quoted passages in the Bible, and it has the power to show you the kind of joyful life you’ve always wanted to live.


A Journey Through the Bible’s Most Joyful Book

“Why is This Man Smiling?”
Philippians 1:1-11
September 18, 2011

“The Choice to Rejoice”
Philippians 1:12-30
September 25, 2011

“Rooted, Grounded, United”
Philippians 2:1-30
(World Communion Sunday)
October 2, 2011

“One Worth Knowing”
Philippians 3:1-11
October 9, 2011

“Soaring in Solidarity”
Philippians 3:12-21
October 16, 2011

Children’s Sabbath
October 23, 2011

“Living a Life of Joy”
Philippians 4:1-23
October 30, 2011

Certainly, this would be a great series for you to invite a friend or family member to experience with you. You and I both know people for whom joy – real, deep, biblical joy – is an elusive gift. Let’s experience that blessing together, and share it with others.

See you Sunday!

Grace, Peace…and Joy!


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

Email: mdevega@cherokeespumc.org

Yes, it’s that time of year again! Join us after church on Sunday, September 25, for our annual Pork Feed, featuring the delicious flavor-injected pork tenderloins from the Parker family. You are invited to bring side dishes and salads to share, and desserts and beverages will be provided. A free will donation will be accepted, and all of the proceeds will support our building renovation fund.

Join us this Sunday as we celebrate a milestone in the lives of our third-graders. They will receiving their very own Bibles from the church, as a gift from the congregation and as a sign of our support of their continued spiritual maturity. They will also receive a beautiful, handmade, tatted cross bookmark made by Ellen Henderson.

Attention, all youth, grades 7-12! We are going to be kicking off a great new year of youth activities with an event after church, September 18. You and your families are encouraged to join us for a time of free food and fun games. We’re looking to have badminton and ping-pong tournaments, and lots of pizza. You’ll also get a copy of the Fall youth schedule and learn about the two new weekly small groups we are offering this fall: one for mid-high and one for senior high! Don’t miss out on the fun!

Prospective small group leaders are encouraged to attend a training workshop on Small Group Ministry, either on September 23 at Wesley UMC in Sioux City or September 24 at Alta UMC. Registration is $5, and the schedule goes from 9:00 to 4:00pm. Lunch is provided. The event is led by a staff member of Ginghamsburg UMC in Ohio, one of the largest Methodist churches in the country.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Remembering 9/11

September 6, 2011

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

Do you remember where you were on Monday, September 10, 2001?

No? Me neither. In fact, most of that day was largely forgettable; just another day in the office. The news headlines at the time were also fairly unremarkable: Time magazine had done yet another story about disgraced senator Gary Condit and the mysterious disappearance of Chandra Levy. Michael Jackson had just rung the bell to open up a day of trading on Wall Street. And famed motorist Rodney King was pulled over and charged with drug possession.

Just another typical day in America.


But then came Tuesday. I suppose it would take very little to jog your memory about where you were and what you were doing that morning. I was dropping my then 6-month old daughter Grace off at her daycare when her caregiver stopped me at the door to ask if I had heard the news. We gathered with other preschool workers around a grainy, black and white television to watch the unfolding saga.

I rushed off to the office and assembled with the rest of the church staff, spending a large part of the morning with them in the chapel in prayer. News updates trickled in as we gathered: a collision in the Pentagon, a crash in Pennsylvania. Like all of you, we felt stunned, heartsick, and numb.

Later that evening, we held a prayer service for the congregation and the community, and the chapel was filled with watery-eyed, shell-shocked people, who attempted to express the unutterable anguish they were feeling. Some prayed tearfully for the victims and their families, particularly those who were still missing. Others prayed for the volunteers and officials on the scene. A few confessed their own anger, searching for ways to stem their instincts for revenge. Someone even prayed for the Muslims in our city, that they would not be subject to unfair prejudice. The tears flowed freely that night.


The task of preaching that first Sunday after 9/11 was a formidable one. I remember standing before a congregation in the chapel preaching on two texts: John 11:28-37 (the death of Lazarus) and Luke 19:41-44 (Jesus outside Jerusalem). The connection between the two texts was eminently clear: these are two of the only times in the gospels where Jesus is recorded as weeping. But the connection between those texts and the emotional burdens of 9/11 were even more profound.

When reflecting on Jesus’ tears upon hearing of the unexpected death of his dear friend Lazarus, I said the following:

It is appropriate to cry. Jesus’ weeping over the death of Lazarus suggests to us that weeping over the death of any part of God’s creation is itself a divine action. We need not suppress the tears, we need not cover up our deep feelings of anger, bitterness, confusion, or grief. To be emotionally open in the midst of suffering does not mean a lack of faith in God; indeed, crying with grief is a reflection of the Divine. God weeps even today, and so may we.

Jesus’ tears were real and raw, much like the grief shared by the congregation that day. But in John, we see Jesus crying for a very different reason. Rather than grieving the loss of innocent life, Jesus stood on the outskirts of a city in chaos, bemoaning their demise, and longing for the people to follow the path that leads to peace: As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, "If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. (Luke 19:41-42)

And so, in that same sermon, I offered these words:

God weeps today because we do not live in a place remotely close to the kind of place God is working to create. This world does not exist according to the kingdom values of peace, equality, justice, compassion, and love. The countries of this world have busied themselves with building up their self-aggrandizing, political, economic, and military machines. Without a hint of cooperation or compassion between them, nations have risen against nation, becoming guilty of that very thing which Jesus wept over outside Jerusalem: “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.”

If Jesus’ tears in John were born of grief, the tears in Luke were forged from a deep desire for justice and peace. And in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, God shared both kinds of tears for both of those reasons. The people of faith came together to hear words that both comfort and challenge, from a God who both empathizes with our deepest anguish and calls us to a higher hope.

And now, as we gather ten years later, both kinds of tears are appropriate once again.


Much has certainly changed in the past ten years. The raw anguish has largely abated, and our news headlines today are more about economics, politics, and celebrity tabloids rather than our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And as much as we shared the same feelings after 9/11, we are now a country quite polarized along multiple ideological fault lines. There will be those on this tenth anniversary who will want to criticize our country for its past and present decisions. There will be those on the other hand who will want to “wrap the cross with the flag” under the jingoistic notion of civil religion. And there are many, many people on the spectrum in between.

It is therefore quite appropriate that the tenth anniversary of 9/11 falls on a Sunday, and critically important for us to do what we did ten years ago: gather together. For though there now may be differences of opinion throughout the country on how to respond to 9/11, the church must do what it always does: come together, hear the biblical accounts of God’s activity throughout history, and remember our calling as God’s people to promote justice and work for peace in a hurting world.

This Sunday, we will turn to the book of Nehemiah, and hear the story of how the Israelites returned to the site of abject tragedy – the destruction of their beloved Temple by a foreign empire seventy years prior – and began the work of rebuilding both their lives and their sense of community. The contemporary connections to this passage are quite clear, and we will ask the question, “What have we learned since 9/11?” We’ll hear some valuable lessons from the great reformer Ezra, who led the Israelites to a sincere recommitment to God. It is a text that I believe has a profound message for us on this special anniversary.

Finally, on a personal note, let me tell you how much I am looking forward to rejoining you after an immensely rewarding, life-altering renewal period. Over the weeks and months to come, I’ll steadily share with you how the experience abroad will shape my life and our ministry together. In the meantime, I am deeply grateful for your support, prayers, and your warm welcomes as we return to St. Paul’s and the good people of Cherokee. (And, may I add, it feels great to be back in the rhythm of writing these Mid-Week Messages to you!)

Now, more than ever, it is good to be the church. Let’s gather together in solemn remembrance, and work together for peace.

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
email: mdevega@cherokeespumc.org