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

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Three Hardest Words to Say

March 25, 2014

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

What are the three hardest words to say?

Last Friday, the British news agency The Guardian published a guest column by Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, in which he addressed that very question.  He began by sharing vivid childhood memories of his father’s physical abuse of his mother:  “I can still recall the smell of alcohol, see the fear in my mother's eyes and feel the hopeless despair that comes when we see people we love hurting each other in incomprehensible ways. I would not wish that experience on anyone, especially not a child.”  [1]

As a result, Tutu has spent his life learning how to forgive his now-deceased father of those atrocities, and bluntly acknowledges the difficulty in doing so.  “When I recall this story, I realize how difficult the process of forgiving truly is. Intellectually, I know my father caused pain because he himself was in pain. Spiritually, I know my faith tells me my father deserves to be forgiven as God forgives us all. But it is still difficult. The traumas we have witnessed or experienced live on in our memories. Even years later they can cause us fresh pain each time we recall them.”

In our series on the life of Joseph, we turn this Sunday to the most remarkable aspect of his story:  Joseph’s choice to forgive his brothers for their betrayal.  Now roughly the age of 30, Joseph had spent many years trying to move past that childhood trauma.  But the sting of those memories likely lingered just beneath the surface of his every day life, despite his newly found prestige as second in command in Egypt.  Seeing his brothers enter the royal palace that day had to be the equivalent of tearing a bandage off an old wound, and we would not only expect him, but allow him, to exact retribution on his brothers. 

Why in the world would he even think about forgiving them?

Desmond Tutu provided an answer straight out of his own story:  Why would I do such a thing? I know it is the only way to heal the pain in my boyhood heart. Forgiveness is not dependent on the actions of others. Yes, it is certainly easier to offer forgiveness when the perpetrator expresses remorse and offers some sort of reparation or restitution. Then, you can feel as if you have been paid back in some way. You can say: "I am willing to forgive you for stealing my pen, and after you give me my pen back, I shall forgive you." This is the most familiar pattern of forgiveness. We don't forgive to help the other person. We don't forgive for others. We forgive for ourselves. Forgiveness, in other words, is the best form of self-interest.

I love that last line.  Forgiveness is not mamby-pamby acquiescence.  It is not the wimpy way out.  It certainly does not advise that the victim continue to suffer abuse.  Instead, it is a bold proclamation to the perpetrator that their attempts of dehumanization have failed, and it is a refusal to participate in the self-perpetuating cycle of revenge that destroys relationships and human worth.  Forgiveness declares an end to mutual destruction, and begins a path toward healing.  In short, “forgiveness is the best form of self-interest.”

My pastoral care professor in seminary once told me that the old adage “forgive and forget” is a misnomer.  Try as we might, we won’t ever forget the harms done to us, simply because we can’t.  Our brains work too well at storing and retrieving memories that we will never be able to reformat our minds and pretend the past never happened.  Instead, my professor once suggested that we forgive and “decentralize.”  In other words, forgiveness means that we work on our own healing so that the painful memories that once centrally defined our lives become pushed to the fringe.  They will always be in your memory, but they need not exert the same level of influence on you.  And as those memories become more decentralized to your existence, you can find a way through the pain and live a restored life.

Maybe that’s what happened to Joseph in the nearly twenty years since he was thrown in that pit by his brothers.  Maybe he learned to forgive his brothers, not by pretending it never happened or allowing himself to be victimized, but by replacing the vividness of that pain with a new source of strength:  his own conviction that he was a beloved, protected, and nurtured child of God.  That alone could explain how he could stand before his brothers and say, remarkably, “You intended to cause me harm, but God used it for good.”

So, those three words that are the most difficult to say, according to Tutu?  They are words that seek and offer forgiveness: 

There are times when all of us have been thoughtless, selfish or cruel. But no act is unforgivable; no person is beyond redemption. Yet, it is not easy to admit one's wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness. "I am sorry" are perhaps the three hardest words to say. We can come up with all manner of justifications to excuse what we have done. When we are willing to let down our defenses and look honestly at our actions, we find there is a great freedom in asking for forgiveness and great strength in admitting the wrong. It is how we free ourselves from our past errors. It is how we are able to move forward into our future, unfettered by the mistakes we have made.

If you ever need a vivid example of what forgiveness looks like, then Lent points us to the cross.  There you’ll find the greatest model for forgiveness humanity has ever received.  And thank God for it.  Because it is in God’s forgiveness of us that we discover true freedom, and true healing.

Grace and Peace,


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

We are pleased to unveil the newly installed carillon at the church this Sunday, which replaces the one damaged by our recent fire.  Join us this Sunday as we dedicate it and hear it played in the sanctuary.  

Monday, March 17, 2014

A Letter to Grace, on This, Her Thirteenth Birthday

March 18, 2014

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

Today I am officially the father of a teenager.

I don’t know how that sentence strikes you.  For those who have been down this path with your own children, the idea of having a teenager in the house again might give you the shivers.  Not me.  At least not yet.  So, I decided to process the fullness of my emotions with this letter that I shared with Grace this morning:

Dear Grace,

Thirteen years ago today, you took your first breath and opened your eyes to a world that instantly became brighter the moment you entered it.  You don’t remember any of your earliest days, of course, but your mother and I would not trade in any of those precious moments for anything in the world.  There are memories I will always treasure, more than nearly any other:  comforting you at night by laying you on my chest to feel the thrum of my throat and the beat of my heart; singing you to sleep with the hymn “This is a Day of New Beginnings;” swinging you in my arms in a makeshift baby swing that elicited your tiny shouts of “Again!  Again!”

Along the way, you have became your own person.  You have developed a voracious appetite for reading and a curiosity to learn more about the world.  You have cultivated an eye for artistry and a skill for creating beautiful things.  You are a hard working and stellar student, and we have never had to worry about your conduct at school.  And your sociable spirit and ease in new situations make you readily open and available to befriending new people.  Those qualities will serve you well as you enter a new chapter of your life that will be marked with dramatic changes and roller coaster adjustments.  That is all part of being a teenager.

Teenager.  You know, Grace, if we stop and think about it, the label “teenager” is really just a construct of our numerical system.  Because we happen to name the numbers after twelve and before twenty with the suffix “-teen”, we ascribe them with some uniform significance.   But your teen years will encompass a wide gamut of developmental, relational, and psychological events, from junior high all the way up to college.  Adolescence doesn’t begin the moment one turns thirteen, just as a teenager doesn’t instantly become an adult when one turns twenty.  It is much more complicated than that. 

Think about how different cultures designate “coming of age,” for youth.  Jewish people observe bar mitzvahs for 13-year old boys and bat mitzvahs for 12-year old girls.  When girls in some Latin American countries turn fifteen, they are celebrated with a “quinceanera.”  Korean youth come of age on precisely the Monday of the third week in May of their nineteenth year.  And even in this country, some would consider turning thirteen to be not nearly as big a deal as turning sixteen, when they get their driver’s license!

So, in some ways, today is really just another day.  But it’s still a good day.  Because it links past with promise, fond memories with future possibilities.  Your twelve years of joy, curiosity, intelligence, and hard work have set you on a course to chase your dreams and make a difference in the world.  But to get there, you will have to clarify your passion,, hone your skill, set your convictions, and figure out who you really want to be.  That, if nothing else, is what being a teenager means.

So here is my prayer for you.  It’s straight out of the Bible, which, as you are learning in our Confirmation class, can be a source of great guidance throughout your life.  These prayers come straight from some of the most famous youth in the Bible.  Emulate them, and you will walk the path that God has set before you:

Like Samuel, may you sharpen your listening skills to hear God’s voice and seek the guidance of elders in your life.

Like Esther, may you exhibit courage and compassion for the sake of others, “for such a time as this.”

Like, Miriam, may you grow in your love for music, and may your song lead people to new life.

Like Joseph, may you withstand any adversity that comes your way, compromising neither your convictions or your principles, and practice the transformative power of forgiveness.

Like David, may you cultivate a love for God in your heart, and may you learn to prioritize your inward character over your outward appearance.

Like Mary, may you always be obedient to God’s best purpose and will for your life, so that your soul may magnify the Lord, and so that you may be a bearer of good news for others.

And most of all, be like Jesus, who during his teenage years “grew in wisdom and stature, and favor with God and with people.” 

Grace, always know that I am immensely proud of you, and I know your mother is, too.  You are loved for who you are, regardless of what your successes and failures in life may be.  Enjoy these tender years of your youth and seize each day fully, so that the potential of tomorrow becomes the foundations of your past.   And remember that you will never be alone. 

I love you,


Monday, March 10, 2014

A Prayer of Blessing for the Season

March 11, 2014

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

With Daylight Savings Time upon us, and temperatures hovering into the sixties yesterday (Hallelujah!), I know many of you are already thinking about the arrival of Spring.  In my seven years as a resident of Iowa, I have come to enjoy this season more than any others.  The longer daylight, the thawing ice and snow, and the return of the color green to our landscape palette is just plain good for the soul. 

But no contingent in our community is more earnestly anticipating the coming of Spring than our farmers.  Soon, they will be out firing up their tillers, preparing their soil, and laying each precious seed in a pattern of precision and depth that they hope will produce a bountiful harvest in the Fall.

Life in the Midwest has illuminated for me this predominant biblical truth:  Our relationship with God is uniquely expressed through our relationship with the land.  Time and again, the people of God felt both the blessings of their faithfulness and the trials of their waywardness through their experience with the earth.  Rain, drought, harvest, barrenness, bounty, wilderness, fruit, and flood --  the Bible uses these images to describe not just the agrarian life, but the faithful life as well.  

Listen for how the Torah states it:

The Lord will command the blessing to be with you—in your barns and on all the work you do—and he will bless you on the land the Lord your God is giving you. The Lord will establish you as his own, a holy nation, just as he swore to you, if you keep the Lord your God’s commandments and walk in his ways.  (Deuteronomy 28:8)


It is in this context that we are eager to offer the Cherokee community a unique worship opportunity.  Pastor Larry Ostercamp of the Meriden Evangelical Free Church, Pastor Ethan Sayler of Memorial Presbyterian Church, and I are co-sponsoring “A Prayer of Blessing for the Season” at the Cherokee County Fairgrounds on Saturday, April 12. 

It will begin with a brief, 15-minute worship service, featuring hymns, scripture, and a prayer of blessing.  Then we will enjoy a free meal for the community, including pork sandwiches from the Cherokee Pork Producers, along with sides and beverages.  There will be antique tractors on hand for people to enjoy, and we encourage farm families to bring photographs of their farmsteads to put on display.  If you would like to help at all with the event, please let me know.

We want to be clear that this prayer of blessing is not some magical talisman we hope will ensure a bountiful harvest, or some enchanted incantation that we expect will bring the right mix of rain and sunshine.  Our deeper desire is that this service will reorient our lives and our perspectives around what really matters in life.  It will remind us of our invaluable connection to the earth, our dependence on its yield, and our responsibility to be good stewards of its sustainability.  It will give thanks for those who toil long hours and days to bring forth food from its depths to feed our citizenry, and we will pray for their health and strength throughout the year.  Most importantly, it will draw our attention to the One who causes all things to grow, both in the earth and in our hearts. 

Consider joining us on Saturday, April 12, for this important community event.  And let us give thanks to God together.

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

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The You That No One Sees

March 4, 2014

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

Today is Fat Tuesday, the final day of frivolity before the sobriety of Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent.  We have developed a wide range of events to mark the day around the world, from Mardi Gras in New Orleans, to Carnivale in Rio, and even our past celebrations of the Great Cherokee Pancake Day Race right here in good old Cherokee.

But I bet you’ve never heard of what they do in the little town of Basel, Switzerland.  They have an event called Fasnacht, a three-day festival filled with partying, celebrating, and general merriment.  But what makes Fasnacht unique is the masks: the streets teem with crowds wearing fancy, festive, and colorful masks, so that no one is quite sure who the person next to them really is.

That seems to me to be an appropriate way to mark the beginning of Lent, because all of us have become quite adept at wearing masks.  We conceal ourselves for public display, all in the search of thrills, pleasure, and even deep joy.

It’s no wonder that one of the largest sections of the Sermon on the Mount addresses the many ways we wear those masks.   And Jesus is very clear:  What matter most is not what you project to others on the outside, but what lies beneath your facade: 

  • “Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”
  • “Whenever you give to the poor, don’t blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may get praise from people. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get.”
  • “When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get.”
  • “And when you fast, don’t put on a sad face like the hypocrites. They distort their faces so people will know they are fasting. I assure you that they have their reward.”

God is not interested in the images that we project each day for other people to see at work, at school, at church, at home, or in the community.  God is not impressed by the facades we assume to protect ourselves from pain, to advance ourselves through life, to deceive others for selfish gain, or to gain the fading riches with which this world tempts us.  God is always more interested in our genuine selves, the real you, the authentic you.

The you that no one else can see.

One day in college, I walked into my dorm apartment after class, and headed over to the telephone to check the voicemails on my answering machine.  There was only one message, and all it said was this:

“Magrey, I saw what you did last night.  Don’t think no one saw you.”

The message totally freaked me out.  At once I tried to figure out who called.  I didn’t have caller ID, so I was left with having to decipher the caller based on their voice.  I listened to the message, over and over again, finally resigned to not knowing the person’s identity.  Then my mind shifted to the more intriguing matter at hand:

What was it that I was doing last night?

I replayed the whole previous evening.  Every single action, every single place that I had been, everything word, every act.  I rewound and fast-forwarded the whole night in my head, trying to remember what it was that I did that this person thought was so bad.  Then, in a wave of sudden realization, the thought occurred to me:

I had done nothing wrong. 

That realization brought great relief.  As it turns out, the call came from my dearly beloved brother, who was prank calling me to teach me the same lesson that someone had taught him:  Whatever you do, feel, think, and say, deep down inside, in the private moments of your life, truly matters.  Though it be concealed from other people’s view, it is of utmost importance to God. 

It’s an important lesson, but a tough one to learn.  It’s a whole lot easier to do righteous acts than to be a righteous person.  It’s easier to project the right image than it is to think the right thoughts, act with the right motivations, and have the right kind of integrity and sincerity God requires of us.  And when push comes to shove, aren’t we tempted to think that it’s good enough to live the right kind of life, and leave our private world to ourselves?

Sure it’s easier.  But it’s also costly.

Ultimately, it’s costly because we lose a golden opportunity to receive a great gift from God.  It is the gift of a clean conscience, grounded squarely in the will and purpose of God.  It is a gift that produces contentment and joy, and an experience of the richness of God’s kingdom fully realized in our lives.  It is a taste, a glimpse, of the very nature and character of God.  Indeed, it is a connection with the very heart of the God who loves us. 

No wonder Jesus called it a “blessed” life in the Sermon on the Mount.  Because that sounds like blessedness to me.  Not a convoluted notion of rewards for right behavior.  Not a fleeting thrill for mask-wearing partygoers.  Not just another trophy on our shelves, or an emotional high that will fade at the next valley.  No, this is a timeless, eternal treasure stored up in heaven.  To be blessed is to be content in knowing that we are exactly who God created us to be, and that we are able to live with a deeper, fuller purpose than anything this world offers to us.

Doesn’t that sound like a good enough motivation to peel off that mask and get your heart right with God? 

If it does, then welcome to this Lenten season. 

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

As a reminder, please adjust your clocks one hour ahead this Saturday night, as we “Spring Forward” for Daylight Savings Time.