xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Mid-Week Message: October 2013

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

When Life is Too Hard for Words

October 29, 2013

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

The toughest moments in life are those that cannot be described by a single word.  We know joy.  We have felt grief.  We recognize contentment.  Those we can explain to others.  But there are times when language fails us, when certain feelings require an assault of our best vocabulary only to have them nip around the edges.  Sadness, sorrow, restlessness, itchiness, darkness.  Suffering, perhaps.  But even suffering is both too strong a word, yet not strong enough.  Whatever it is, you don’t talk about it when someone asks you how you are doing.  Not because you don’t want to, but because you don’t know how.

As hard as it is to name that feeling, it is even harder to deal with it.  Suffering of this nature often presents two distinct responses, which we try in equal measure.

The first is to focus forward.  We turn our gaze away from the suffering of the present moment in the hopes of spotting a bright day on the horizon.  We cling to the possibility that though things might be rough now, we need not worry:  it will be okay someday soon.  It always is, we say to ourselves.  We justify that hope by shrinking our canon within the canon, theologizing our situation with thoughts of the Promised Land, and Easter, and the resurrection.  We take our cues from these select biblical narratives because they reinforce our salved conviction that hope is surely coming, for it says so in the Bible. 

But then three days pass. Or forty days, or even forty years, and there has been no resurrection, no rainbow, no promised land.  We come to the reluctant realization that this promise we assuredly claimed has not come to be.

So we shift to the other extreme.  Since the future cannot be manufactured with expedience, we negotiate a settlement with the present.  We resign ourselves to our condition as a sandcastle settles with the sea.  We embrace the imminence of our suffering and say it is “not so bad after all.”  Our canon within the canon looks different, focusing instead on texts that are less imaginative and more realistic.  All is vanity and chasing after the wind, says Ecclesiastes.   I have a thorn in my flesh, says Paul.  Take up your cross daily, says Jesus.  Then, having acknowledged reality, we detach from it.  We carry no degree of anticipation or expectation of a turnaround, lest we invest too much emotional capital on a disappointing outcome. 

We soon discover that hedging our bets and exercising caution is no great solution either.  Imagination and creativity are innate human qualities, and it is part of what it means to be made in God’s image.  We cannot help but dream of a future that is better than today.

The end result of these opposing options is a life of vacillation between the two.  Between anesthetizing our suffering with hopeful dreams, and suppressing our anticipation with detachment.  Between denying the power of our pain through constant longing, and by giving it too much power through acquiescence.  In short, between wanderlust and wandering lost.  Yet either choice is a form of denial.  If we look past our suffering, we deny the reality of the present moment.  If we resign to our suffering, we deny the power of the resurrection. 

Is it possible – and I offer this to you with earnest questioning – that there might be a third option?

Maybe it would begin with the simple acknowledgement that to suffer means to be alive.  Not that suffering is ever beneficial or necessary, but that the capacity to feel complex, even indescribable emotions, is a solid reminder that we are alive.  To deny that ability to feel is to deny what it means to exist altogether.  Even Job – the poster child for human suffering - realized that his misery was an indicator of his own aliveness.  He determined his own path through suffering “as long as breath is in me and God’s breath is in my nostrils.”

Naming suffering as an indicator of our existence can remove any fear of its presence in our lives.  We need not shudder or cower.  Instead, we can encounter that pain within us and explore its shadows, unafraid of its power.  We can plunge into its depths like a spelunker in a cave, or a deep-sea diver in the ocean.  In the midst of that dark pressure, we are then surrounded by an amazing, intense complexity of thought and emotion.  We can confront our suffering courageously:  chronicle it, process it, attempt to put it into words, verbalize it to a friend, write it in a journal, identify its precedents, translate it into art, create its metaphor, see it, express it, and share it.  And then, something marvelous can happen.  By neither denying or acquiescing to our suffering, we can instead offer it to God as raw material for creative transformation. “Think of the various tests you encounter as occasions for joy,” James writes. “After all, you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. Let this endurance complete its work so that you may be fully mature, complete, and lacking in nothing.”

In a way, writing today's Mid-Week Message for you is my own attempt at accomplishing this very thing myself. 

And just as it is unwise to go ocean diving or cave exploring alone, we must always take this journey with someone else.  A trusted companion (such as a loved one, friend, or mentor) or professional guide (such as a therapist, spiritual director, or pastor) can be our lifeline along the journey, ensuring that we surface regularly, checking our gauges to make sure we are ready to continue. 

None of this, of course, is possible without the presence of God’s Spirit at work in and through us.  For there is no greater companion on this journey than Christ himself, who knew precisely the best course to follow when confronted by human suffering.  He was neither overwhelmed by nor in denial of its power.   Instead, he “descended into hell,” plunging straight into human suffering and confronting it head on.  Only then could our human condition be creatively transformed into new life.  

Your baptism, by the way, makes you a participant in that very same narrative.  And when life gets too hard to put into words, that is always the best news of all.

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

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Monday, October 21, 2013

A Ten-Second Pause

October 22, 2013

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

Like many of you, I grew up in the charming television neighborhood of Fred McFeely Rogers, affectionately known simply as “Mr. Rogers.”  He died in 2003, leaving behind a forty-five year legacy of teaching children how to live with decency and honesty, and challenging all of us to create a safe, nurturing world for people of all ages. 

Mr. Rogers was honored in 1997 by the Academy of Arts and Sciences with a Lifetime Achievement Award.  The presenter was actor Tim Robbins, who introduced him in this way:

Ladies and gentlemen, the best neighbor we’ve ever had:  Fred Rogers.  (applause)  For giving generation upon generation of children confidence in themselves, for being their friend, for telling them again and again and again that they are special and that they have worth, it is my honor on behalf of everyone here and on behalf of the millions of children whose mornings have brightened with your kindness, to present you with this Lifetime Achievement Award.

The auditorium full of Hollywood celebrities stood to their feet, as the gentle, sweet Fred Rogers - the Presbyterian minister who became America’s favorite neighbor - approached the microphone to give his acceptance speech.  It lasted only about ninety seconds, much shorter than many of today’s self-adulating speeches.  But what makes it particularly unusual is what he invited the audience to do, right in the middle of the speech.   Read the text below, imagining the slow, tender tone of his voice, speaking as if we were all in that famous television living room again: 

Thank you. Thank you. Oh it’s a beautiful night in this neighborhood. So many people have helped me to come here to this night. Some of you are here, some are far away and some are even in Heaven. All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, 10 seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are, those who have cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life. 10 seconds of silence. I’ll watch the time.

[Ten Second Pause]

Whomever you’ve been thinking about, how pleased they must be to know the difference you feel they’ve made. You know they’re the kind of people television does well to offer our world. Special thanks to my family and friends, and to my co-workers in Public Broadcasting, Family Communications, and this Academy for encouraging me, allowing me, all these years to be your neighbor. May God be with you. Thank you very much. 

As you could see from the YouTube video of the speech, there was hardly a dry eye in the whole room when he was finished.  [1]


Now, I share this speech with you not simply as a tribute to Mr. Rogers.  (whom, frankly, I still miss even to this day, given what passes for television today.)  Rather, I offer this speech to you for its challenge, both to remember our past and to pledge toward our future.  

All of us come from different walks of life – hometowns, family origins, formative experiences – but we all have one thing in common:  we were all children.  Each of those significant influences that, for better or worse, make us what we are today, not only call us to remembrance, but stir us to action for the next generation.  We are responsible, right now, for the very children that will look back on us someday with the same evaluative gaze with which we consider our ancestors. 

Mr. Rogers’ advice is clear:  Our lives are to be a part of every child’s future 10-second pause.

This Sunday, we will once again have the opportunity to hear our beautiful children lead us in our annual Children’s Sabbath, a national initiative sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund and supported by our United Methodist Women.  This year’s theme is “Turning Swords into Plowshares:  A Bright Hope for Tomorrow.”  They will raise awareness of issues affecting the lives of children in this country and beyond, focusing specifically on ways that we can build a more peaceful world.

The children will also lead the way in starting our November donation drive for our local food pantries.  Starting this Sunday, they will bring in non-perishable food items, and we will continue collecting them from you from now until Thanksgiving.  We will also ask you to make a financial donation to the youth program’s service project to the Midwest Christian Children’s Home.  The youth will use those funds to purchase Christmas gifts for the many boys who will not otherwise get a gift this year, and deliver it to them when they spend an evening with them in December.

Though he is no longer with us, the loving legacy of Mr. Rogers remains, calling us to a future in which we care for our children and for everyone around us.  It is stated no more clearly than Jesus himself, who commanded us, quite simply, to “Love the Lord your God, and your neighbor as yourself.”

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

[1]  View footage of Mr. Rogers’ acceptance speech on YouTube:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQqKBqj5xhY

To subscribe to the Mid-Week Message via email, send a message to mdevega@sp-umc.org.   
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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

I'm Not Dead Yet!

October 15, 2013

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

Who knew that such good preaching illustrations could come out of the American Bar Association?

My thanks go to John Cook - church member, attorney, and Pancake Race Poo-Bah,  for giving me an article posted five days ago on the ABA website with the deliciously intriguing lead sentence:  “An Ohio man who appeared in court on Monday is legally dead, a judge has ruled.”

Here's the story.  Donald Miller disappeared from his home in 1986, and eight years later was declared deceased, so that his spouse and children could begin receiving Social Security death benefits.  Now, nearly thirty years later, Miller has re-emerged, explaining that his disappearance was a result of desperation, fueled by alcoholism and the loss of his job.  He returned to a rather shocked (ex-)wife and children, and was hoping to get back his social security number and driver’s license so that he could attempt to resume his life.

However, as the lead sentence suggests, proving your alive to the public is one thing; proving it to the law is quite another. 

I won’t get into the incredibly interesting legal dimensions to the case, which you can read for yourself.  [1]   What I’m interested in is the full range of reactions by legal people across the country, who offered over one hundred comments on the ABA website in just two days since the news broke.

·      The comments ranged from the legal: “It seems to me the legal presumption of death is trumped by the actual appearance of a live person, at least insofar as third party rights are not affected. See eg Scott v McNeal 154 US 34 (1894)” – from “Andrew” (October 10, 3:45pm)

·      To the pop-cultural:  “I believe the judge failed to follow well established precedent set forth in Monty Python v. The Holy Grail, (1975) ….  As noted therein, even if someone says you’re dead, if you say you’re not dead, it is against regulations to rule you as deceased.” – from “MJnevetS” (October 11, 5:09am)

·      To the apocalyptic:  “So basically he is now legally a zombie?” –from  “Tino” (October 11, 4:55am)

·      To the political:  “I wonder if ObamaCare’s individual mandate applies to a legally dead person, or for that matter an un-dead person?” – from “Yankee” (October 10, 5:06pm)

·      To the pseudo-religious:  “Perhaps he can go back and be “born again.” – from “B. McLeod” (October 11, 7:29am)

·      To the comical:  “Is Miller related to Shirley MacLaine?” – from “Pushkin” (October 10, 1:57pm)

·      To the downright plain-spoken:  “Sigh. Once again, COMMON SENSE, R.I.P.” – from “JimB” (October 10, 9:26)

No matter how this eventually shakes out for Mr. Donald Miller and his family, one thing is certain:  Sometimes, it can be easier to pretend that you’re dead than to prove that you’re alive!


Our membership vows offer a very clear, five-fold way of proving that we are spiritually alive.  And second only to “Prayers,” we commit ourselves to “Presence.”  In other words, we simply show up.   After all, when Jesus wanted to prove to his disciples that he was alive following the resurrection, he made his presence known to them (John 20).  And when early Methodists showed up for their annual meetings, John Wesley initiated the custom of having them sing his brother Charles’ hymn “And are We Yet Alive?” which we still sing at Annual Conferences today.  

It’s a very basic idea: if you want to prove to yourself, to God, and to others that you are spiritually alive, don’t run and hide.  Don’t be a religious hermit.  Don’t try to go it alone.  You have to show up:  in Sunday morning worship, in Bible study groups, and by joining with others in ministries of service and witness.  Make your presence known. 

That’s what our next stop on A Disciple’s Path is all about, and we invite you to join us on Sunday morning for a sermon called “The Power of Presence,” followed by one of five weekly small groups that will explore the topic further using the daily workbook.  To date, we have over seventy persons taking part in these groups, and it is exciting to see how the Spirit is moving through our recommitment to Christ and the church.


Finally, in a completely unrelated matter:  Yesterday, driving back from Sioux City from a hospital visit, I thought about our country’s observance of Columbus Day at a time when our people are so polarized and our politics are so broken.  The following verses came to me during that long drive, which I offer to you as an encouragement to pray for our leaders, our country, and our future together:

In Honor of Columbus Day, 2013

In Fourteen Hundred Ninety-Two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

As land approached, his ship drew near
Then what did he discover here?

Wild lobbyists roamed all around
As leaders shut the country down.

They shouted blame and dished out fault
While debts grew closer to default.

The people craved civility
But got more inequality.

Columbus surveyed the terrain,
Then said, “Uh, let’s go back to Spain.”

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

To subscribe to the Mid-Week Message via email, send a message to mdevega@sp-umc.org
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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Listening for God's Word

October 8, 2013

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

So faith comes from listening, but it’s listening by means of Christ’s message. 
Romans 10:17

I remember as a child hearing a number of metaphors for how to relate to the Bible.  I didn’t consider them odd at the time; in fact, most of them made sense, helping me connect its strange words and antiquated imagery to ordinary experience.  I was told, for example, that the Bible is like a road map:  just consult it for direction, and you’ll see the path you need to follow in life.  One time I was told it was a how-to manual:  follow its instructions, and you’ll see your life through to successful completion.  Consider it as a cookbook, and you’ll have the ingredients to a good life. 

Those were all well and good.  For a time.

But now, I’ve come to the gradual realization that such treatments of the Bible are more self-serving than sacred.  While there are a lot of preachers, and even entire Christian traditions, that view the Bible with such utilitarian perspective, there is an option better aligned with the Bible's purpose and potential:  it is less about asking how the Bible can be useful to me, and more about how I can “enter into the text as a participant,” in the words of Eugene Peterson: 

“The most important question we ask of this text is not, ‘What does this mean?’ but ‘What can I obey?’ A simple act of obedience will open up our lives to this text far more quickly than any number of Bible studies and dictionaries and concordances.” 

To reorient our approach to the Scriptures, to make it less about using the Bible and more about becoming useful to God, it requires one key ingredient:  Listening. 

It is no wonder that the first signpost on our Disciple’s Path journey combines two spiritual practices into one:  Prayer and Scripture Reading.  It might seem unusual at first to link the two, as the former seems like an enterprise of emotion, while the other engages the intellect.  For most of us, that sixteen-inch distance between our hearts and our heads can feel like a chasm in practical terms.

But to grow in our faith, the two go hand in hand.  We must read the Bible prayerfully, and we must engage in prayer biblically.  “Faith,” Paul writes to the Jews in Rome, “comes by hearing, and hearing comes from the message of Christ.”  The text is illumined by prayer; prayer is grounded in text.  It is logos and pneuma, word and spirit, united. 


One piece of evidence of how I have changed in my views of the Bible over my sixteen years in ministry is in the subtle but significant difference in how I introduce the scripture reading during worship.  At first, I would simply say, “Today’s Scripture reading is from ….” and then give the chapter and verse.  Or I would say, “This gospel lesson is from …”  Or, sometimes, I would just jump right into reading it, with no introduction at all.

That changed in 2005, when I heard the great preacher and theologian Peter Gomes, of Harvard Divinity School and Harvard’s Memorial Church, utter these rich words in a lecture:

I love the way that in an earlier generation, Presbyterians used to introduce the reading of the scriptures in the 50s and the 60s.  Instead of saying, “Here beginneth the fourth verse of the seventh chapter of the gospel according to St. John” (which is good Episcopal form), they would say, “Listen for the word of God in…”  And then they would give the citation.  Now there is a useful distinction there which I have always cherished.  [2]

Gomes reminded us that it is not the text itself that contains intrinsic power, as in the way I used to perceive it as a road map, instruction manual, or recipe book.  Rather, the Bible is merely the conduit for a living conversation, between Author and audience, between Creator and creation. 

The moment we disengage prayer from scripture reading, we lose that attentiveness to God’s voice as we read the Bible, and the words of the text too easily becomes utilitarian, self-serving, and, therefore, potentially destructive:

It is too easy to say, “This is the word of God.”  And the risk you run in saying that is you confer a kind of sanctity upon these human phrases which may or may not be justified by what they actually have to say.   But if your task is not simply to read a text, but to listen for the word of God - which may speak through, or beyond, or in fact in spite of the text - then you have opened up the possibility, indeed, that “Faith comes by hearing.”  Not by hearing the words of scripture, but by hearing the word of God. 

And they are not the same!  The word of God and the words of scripture are not the same.  Ideally, one helps us to hear the other, but to confuse the two is to make a very serious and fatal mistake.  And the history of our tradition is amplified by the blood of those who made that fatal mistake.  To confuse the word of God with the scriptures is to get into very dangerous waters. 

This Sunday, and in the small groups that follow, we will listen for God’s word together.  Through the reading of sacred texts, the act of solemn prayer and celebratory praise, and in gathering together our collective will to participate in God’s ongoing story.  Together, we will take one more step along the path of discipleship. 

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] Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book:  A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, New York:  Eerdmans, pg. 71.
[2]  Peter Gomes, Lecture, Festival of Homiletics, May, 2005, Atlanta, Georgia.

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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Power of Small Groups

October 1, 2013

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

For the past few weeks, I have encouraged you to sign up for one of our upcoming Disciple’s Path small groups, which begin next week.  Rather than give another sales pitch, I thought I’d offer a testimonial, from a member of the church who experienced first hand the power of being a part of a small group.  She gave me permission to share her message, and it is well worth reading:

St Paul’s is going to be starting a number of small groups in the next several weeks.   Some of you may be feeling as I did before I joined my first small group/ Bible study.  I was born into a Methodist family.  I did all the things you do as you grow up.  I went to Sunday school, Bible School, MYF, sang in the choir when I got older.  I got married and had children and made sure they did all those things too.  And yet, I didn’t know what it meant to be a Methodist, and I certainly didn’t know the Bible.  I couldn’t go to a small group, I didn’t know enough about religion.  And I didn’t want anyone else to know that. 
Three or four years ago St. Paul’s had a number of small groups.  I finally decided it was time I went.  I was a little nervous the first week, but it went fine.  We were given an assignment to read and a few questions to answer in our workbooks, but nothing too bad and I actually learned some things about the Bible and “other stuff” relating to religion.
My small group was made up of a few people I knew a little bit, others I know better and even a couple of people I had only seen at church and had never talked to.  I got to know everyone better in my group, and I learned that at various times in their lives they had had doubts about their beliefs, and they didn’t know as much about the Bible or being a Methodist as they would like to either. 
The group went so well we agreed to have another group at a later time.  We did have another group and expanded it to include other church members.  It went just as well as the first group and I learned more about my beliefs, religion in general, and the Bible. 
I would like to quote from last week’s Mid Week message: “Linnaeus once said, ‘Nature does not proceed by leaps and bounds.’  It is rare, if not impossible, for organisms to develop new characteristics with any degree of suddenness or spontaneity.  For life to advance to greater levels of complexity and achievement, it must do so with had work, gradual change, and steady commitment.”  I grew so much from my small group experiences and would like to encourage each of you to consider joining one also.  
Together, and with steady commitment, we can continue to grow in our faith.

Really, I can’t say it much better than that.

This Sunday, we begin what I really believe will be the most important sermon series I have preached in my six years here.  It is called “A Disciple’s Path,” and its power will rest in part on your attendance at one of the weekly small groups.  Here, once again, are the options for you to choose from:

·      Connie Hankens and Meribeth Adams:  Tuesday afternoons, 1:00-2:30pm, Church Library
·      Bruce Dagel and Magrey deVega: [CLASS FULL]  Tuesday evenings, 6:30-8:00pm, Church Library
·      Dave and Linda Appleby and Linda Burkhart: Wednesday afternoons, 12:00-1:30pm, Church Library
·      Laura Benson and Missy Jenness:  Wednesday evenings, 6:30-7:30pm, Church Library
·      Sheree Hausmann and Jenny Burroughs:  Thursday evenings, 6:30-8:00, Home of Sheree and Louis Hausmann

Sign up by responding to this email or contacting the church office.  Workbooks are now available for $7.00, and you can pick them up today to get started on the initial daily readings, in preparation for your first session next week.  For those who have already signed up, please come by the office to pick up your book.  And join us this Sunday as we begin this very important, six-week series.

Grace and Peace,


The Rev. Magrey R. deVegaSt. Paul's United Methodist Church
531 W. Main St.
Cherokee, IA  51012
Ph:  712-225-3955
Email:  mdevega@sp-umc.org

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