xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Mid-Week Message: January 2014

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Defiant Melody of Birds

January 28, 2014

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

Never has a weekend prior to this last one provided more evidence of the popular Iowa saying:  “If you don’t like the weather, wait fifteen minutes.”  We woke up Saturday morning to brisk winds and temperatures in the single digits (which made for a memorable graveside service for this Florida-born, tropically baked Filipino preacher.)  The weekend ended with a bone-chilling blast of 50 mph arctic winds Sunday night that caused a cancellation of my flight out of Sioux City (I knew there was going to be a problem when there was considerable turbulence on the plane - and we hadn’t yet moved away from the terminal.)

And then in the middle of the weekend, sandwiched between two frigid polar vortexes, there was an unseasonably warm stretch of balmy skies, calm winds, and 40-plus degree temperatures.  And the most unexpected, disorienting aspect of that time?  It wasn't the weather, but a sound: 

I heard birds singing.

On Sunday morning, walking from my car to the church office, I stopped in my tracks to see if my ears were deceiving me.  There was a veritable chorus of robins, happily chattering away, flittering among the branches of the trees on our north lawn.

It had just been hours ago since the teeth-chattering temps and brisk breezes of Saturday, and it would only be a matter of time before howling winds would surge again through town.  But here were the birds, singing “lustily,” as Wesley would say. 

Birds only know the here and now.  They don’t dwell on what the weather was like six hours ago.  And they don’t fret about what will happen six hours ahead.  They simply seize each moment as it comes.  They gauge the present, so that when the conditions are right, when the sun is out and the breeze is light and the temperatures are favorable, they open their eyes, stretch their wings, venture out from their nests, and they burst into song.

Ornithologists tell us that birds sing to usher an alert to all outside threats and all potential competitors.  They sing to proclaim that the space that they occupy, the territory they claim, for that time and place, belongs to them alone.  Regardless of what the past has brought, and despite what the future might bring, a bird’s song is an act of defiance against all that threatens to cause them harm.  Their singing is a proclamation of strength in the midst of suffering. 

But birds also sing in order to lure potential mates, which is a way of saying that a bird’s song introduces the possibility of new life and new beginnings.  After a long, cold season, in which life stands frozen in the eerie silence of winter, a bird’s song is a declaration of spring.  It is a clarion call to all who hear them that the dead of winter will soon be transformed into the resurrection of spring, and that signs of life are just beyond the horizon.  

It’s no wonder that when Jesus wanted to give the disciples a visual metaphor for the kind of life we are to live, and the kind of faith that ought to guide us, he directed them to the birds.  “Consider them,” Jesus said.  It may as well have included:  “Listen to them sing.”

Instead of worrying about the past and fretting about the future, we are called to sing in the here and now.  Like the birds, our song is both a defiance of suffering and a declaration of spring.  But it is also a demonstration of trust.  We must keep singing, even when life has been hard, and even if things could get worse.  “Look at the birds in the sky,” Jesus said.  “They don’t sow seed or harvest grain or gather crops into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than they are?”

Now, I don’t know what you do with all of this, but I have a hunch that many of us currently feel sandwiched between storms, between a past full of howling memories and a future fraught with bone-chilling fears. 

And I do know this:  If the birds can sing while being bookended by blizzards, you can sing right now as well.  You can embrace the present moment, stretch out your wings, and dare to sing a song of defiance, new life, and trust. 

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

I am currently down in Leesburg, Florida, serving with the Florida Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, interviewing and evaluating candidates for ministry.  Thank you for your prayers as we do this important work of the church, and for safe travels as I return Sunday afternoon.  We invite you to worship this Sunday, when the wonderful Dave Orthmann will return as our guest preacher.  In the event of a pastoral emergency, please contact the church office.  

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Difference Between Departing and Leaving

January 21, 2014

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

This Sunday’s scripture lesson from Matthew 4:12-22 contains a clever bookend of verbs which, at first glance, appear to be quite similar.  But Matthew juxtaposes them in such a way that their subtle distinction conveys a critically different meaning for the Christian life. 

Now when Jesus heard that John was arrested, he went to Galilee.  He left Nazareth and settled in Capernaum.  (Matthew 4:12)

They  (James and John) were in a boat with Zebedee their father repairing their nets. Jesus called them and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.  (Matthew 4:22)

The two instances of the verb left would appear, at least in the Common English Bible, to be the same verb.  But the original Greek terms for those words would suggest an important difference, particularly in the way Matthew uses them.

The first word for left can also mean depart or withdraw.  Matthew uses it ten times in his gospel, more than the other gospel writers combined. 

  • The wise men “depart” from their visit with Jesus after hearing of Herod’s plot. (2:12)
  • Joseph “departs” with his family to Egypt to protect Jesus from Herod. (2:13-14)
  • Jesus orders attendants to “depart” from a room after a loved one had died. (9:24) 
  • Jesus “departed” from a synagogue after hearing of a plan by the Pharisees to destroy him. (12:15)
  • Jesus “departed” from Gennesaret following a testy confrontation with the Pharisees (15:21)

The pattern suggests that in Matthew’s gospel, one departs as a response to some crisis or threat.  It is often a choice born of survival and self-preservation, a natural consequence when facing the troubles of the world.

Matthew then moves to the story of Jesus calling the first disciples, as he walks along the Sea of Galilee and finds Peter and Andrew fishing.  “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  Then, here’s the verb:  “Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.”

That Greek word for leaving is a very common one in the gospels, used widely by all four authors.  But in Matthew’s gospel, it is used as a direct antithesis to departing.  Whereas people depart from bad situations, imminent threats, and moments of crisis, people leave in order to move toward an experience that will be positive, transformative, and joyful. 

That same word for leaving occurs both when Jesus was baptized and when his temptation ended, ushering in his public ministry.  Jesus used that word when teaching the disciples how to pray, describing the way we are to forgive and be forgiven.  (In fact, the Greek word translated as “forgive” in most of our English translations is this very same word for “leave.”)  Jesus used that word when encouraging the little children to come to him, for to such as them the kingdom of heaven belongs.  And finally, when Jesus died on the cross, his spirit left him, producing the greatest moment of transformation in human history.

By juxtaposing both depart and leave in the same text, Matthew essentially sets up a dichotomy that invites the followers of Jesus to choose one of two paths: 

Will we simply live our lives departing, from one crisis to the next, falling whim and prey to whatever pains and difficulties present themselves without notice or indication? 

Or will we make a conscious choice to leave our former selves behind in order to experience the transformed life to which Jesus calls us?

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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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Your Pastor

January 14, 2014

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

It is rare for me to use the Mid-Week Message as a forum for personal self-reflection, but these last few days have prompted me to think about the privilege I have to serve as your pastor. 

On Saturday night, I received a phone call from the family of Bud Clow that he was likely drawing toward the close of his life.  They have given me permission to share the story of his final moments with you. 

Many of you remember Bud as a gentle, hardworking member of our community, serving the common good as a public servant, farmer, family man, and World War II veteran.  Last October, he was diagnosed with two brain tumors which, for any other man, would havedebilitated his spirit and filled him with gloom.  But not Bud.  Shortly after his diagnosis, he was back in the combine helping with the harvest.  He faced each long drive to Sioux City for his daily radiation treatments as joyful opportunities to enjoy the rolling Iowa landscapes and conversationswith friends.  He spent countless hours in his shop, working on his wood crafting.  And he shared many more loving, tender moments with Dorothy, his beloved bride of 65 years.

When I arrived on Saturday night, Dorothy and her family were gathered tightly around Bud, as he lay in the Hospice bed set up in the living room.  His breathing was sporadic but certain, his eyes were closed, and his countenance calm and still.

For preachers, words are our stock in trade.  We are called to be wordsmiths for life’s most muted moments, employed to give language to our innermost stirrings.  But in that moment, there was little necessary for me to say.  There would be no wishful pining for physical healing.  There would be no saccharin clich├ęs about “leaving this earth behind.”  There would be no impersonal recitations or canned answers.  Instead, I could offer nothing but the silence of my own gentle presence.

As I watched the family share tender words of love and gratitude to Bud, tears rolled down their cheeks as they held each other’s hands in a communal circle around his bed.  Some of them leaned in to whisper to him, while others spoke them aloud for others to hear.  It was then that I felt a deep sense of privilege for being asked to share in that profoundly private moment. 

I’ll be honest with you:  it’s easy to forget what an honor it is to be a pastor.  Most clergy require the wearing of such a simultaneous diversity of hats that we numbly jump through enough daily roles to make our heads spin:  we are part CEO, part administrator, part visionary, part fundraiser, part counselor, part scholar, part personnel manager, part facility supervisor, part teacher, part inspirational writer, part motivational speaker, part coach, part cheerleader, part spiritual director - - and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. 

But it took standing there with the family of Bud Clow to remember why I wouldn’t trade in this complicated, chaotic, unpredictable job for any other in the world.

Dorothy knew I usually brought my hymnal, so she asked me to sing a verse of “It is Well with My Soul.”  I obliged, taking special note of Horatio Spafford’s beautiful poeticline: “When sorrows, like sea billows, roll.”  I then flipped a few pages back to “How Great Thou Art,” and sang that first verse, too.  In the span of those few minutes, Bud listened to the loving, grateful words of his family, and heard the confident, faithful hymns of the saints. 

And by the time I finished singing, Bud had stepped into eternal glory.

Beautiful doesn’t begin to describe what the family said they experienced at that time.  They would add the words mysterious, poignant, and powerful.  And I would say the words sacred and holy.  Truly, God’s presence filled that room and buoyed our souls in a fashion unlike any other that family had ever experienced.

There is no other profession in which a person like me – essentially an outsider – is invited into a family’s most privately fragile, delicately guarded moments of emotional tenderness.  For the community of the faithful, specifically this St. Paul’s congregation, you invite me into and along for these amazing, sacred journeys.

And why is that?  Why do you invite me into these moments?  It has little to do with my personality, my abilities, or my expertise; I’m comfortable enough with myself to readily acknowledge that.  And I certainly offer no medical expertise or clinical care, so the non-believing world usually wants little to do with pastors like me.

You invite me into your lives because yours is a sacramental, incarnational, and communal faith.  You believe in a God who is neither distant nor diffident, but has chosen to draw near to us, even in the most turbulent times, through the most ordinary means.  You believe that God is here, close by.  And even though you believe in a deeply personal God who is as close to you as your own breath, you rely on the resources of community to sense the love of God in the companionship of others. 

You rely on your pastor to remind you that no matter what you see in this life, there is more to life than what you see.  There is always light tucked in the shadows, joy amid the mourning, a meekness that will inherit the earth, and resurrection that will conquer death itself. 

And sometimes, when your pastor doesn’t know what to say, let alone how to say it, it’s a reminder that even your pastor is a human, too, struggling to find words for the unspeakable and images for the unimaginable.  No matter what, I’m hear to remind you that some of the greatest, most beautiful truths may be just outside our gaze, but never beyond God’s reach. 

In case I forget to tell you, it’s quite a privilege to serve as your pastor.

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

Join us as we continue our sermon series on discerning God’s will with a sermon titled “How Can We Hear God?”  If you know someone who is struggling to listen for God’s voice in their lives, you might invite them to this meaningful service. 

Thank you for your generosity and faithful giving throughout this last year.  We were able to pay all of our expenses and now move forward with a fully approved budget for 2014.  We look forward to a bright year of putting God’s love into action together.

Join us as we celebrate the wonderful ministries of mission and outreach by this vital part of our denomination.  In addition, our UMC unit will be recognizing three individuals in the church who embody the mission of St. Paul’s. 

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