xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Mid-Week Message: March 2015

Monday, March 23, 2015

Where Jesus Learned His Obedience

March 24, 2015

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

There are two sacred observances happening within the next week whose juxtaposition rarely gets much attention.

The first event is tomorrow, March 25, known as Annunciation Day.  It is precisely nine months before Christmas Day, and commemorates the visit by the angel Gabriel to a young Mary, in which she was told that she would give birth to the Messiah. The second event is Palm Sunday and the start of Holy Week, in which we once again travel the dark, desolate path that ends with the cross on Golgotha. 

I never realized it until now, but even though the date of Palm Sunday moves around from year to year, these two events are always within proximity of each other. There was likely no intentionality behind scheduling the two so closely, but theologically, considering them together makes a profound statement about the nature of Christian obedience.

If there is anything we admire about Mary, it was her willingness to say yes to God. Her fears and doubts would have made it quite understandable for her to choose the easier path of self-preservation. Instead, she chose to obey God, regardless of the cost and pain that was sure to follow.

Thirty-three years later – but only a matter of days in liturgical time – we find a similar scene in the Garden of Gethsemane. Here the son of Mary wrestled with the very same kinds of questions that his mother faced when he was conceived. A choice between comfort or obedience, between self-preservation or self-sacrifice, between human will and God’s will.

By linking together Annunciation Day and Palm Sunday, we can draw parallels between these bookends of the life of Jesus.  He was born of a woman who chose to obey God at all costs, and chose to live that same life of obedience until the very end. We might even imagine Jesus, as a very young boy, learning this important life lesson about obedience from the one who learned it herself at a very young age:

“Mother, tell me the story again of how the angel visited you,” he might ask.

“Well, dear, he caught me by surprise one day,” Mary would respond, beginning the tale just like she had in countless prior retellings.  “He told me not to be afraid, and that God had chosen me to give birth to you.”

“Were you afraid, Mother?”

“I was at first, of course.  Nothing like this had ever happened to me, and I didn’t know what others might think.  But there was something about the presence of God in that angel that gave me great comfort.  I said yes, and I’m so glad that I did.”

“Why were you glad, Mother?”

“Because then I could have you in my life, son!  But more than that, I knew deep down in my heart that God was going to do great things to change the world, and that God wanted to do them through me. To exalt the humble, fill the hungry, remember the lowly:  it is a privilege to be used by God in such a powerful way.  We must say yes, even when it is difficult to do so.  Do you understand, son?”

“Yes, Mother.  May I ask another question?”

“Of course, dear.”

“Can you sing me that song again?  The one you sang when you said yes to the angel?”

I’d like to think that when Jesus was praying with a blood-soaked brow in the Garden of Gethsemane, the words of his mother’s Magnificat entered his mind.  In those moments when life is most difficult, and the pain and trauma of life have us squarely in their crosshairs, we tend to have our sharpest and clearest memories of the lessons our parents taught us.  Lessons about staying steadfast in our convictions, unwavering in our principles and courageous in our actions.  We learn from our ancestors how to claim our future.  And I think Jesus learned a thing or two about obedience from the woman whose obedience brought him into earthly existence.

Maybe it would be good spiritual preparation for us to pause for a moment, before the pageantry of Palm Sunday, and the passion of Holy Week, to remember these words from Annunciation Day.  May they call us to a spirit of obedience, just as they might have for Jesus himself:

My soul glorifies the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior.
He looks on his servant in her lowliness;
henceforth all ages will call me blessed.
The Almighty works marvels for me.
Holy his name!
His mercy is from age to age,
on those who fear him.
He puts forth his arm in strength
and scatters the proud-hearted.
He casts the mighty from their thrones
and raises the lowly.
He fills the starving with good things,
sends the rich away empty.
He protects Israel, his servant,
remembering his mercy,
the mercy promised to our fathers,
to Abraham and his sons for ever.

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

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The World's Happiest Playlist

March 17, 2015

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

The United Nations would like to know:  What songs make you happy?

The UN has designated this Friday, March 20, as the International Day of Happiness, which sounds at first like a fairly cheesy addition to the already overloaded list of contrived annual observances.  (It’s sandwiched between March 19 (National Poultry Day) and March 21 (National Fragrance Day and National Goof Off Day.)  But the International Day of Happiness was inaugurated in 2012 for a more serious purpose: to declare solidarity with those suffering around the world due to hunger, poverty, and violence, and affirm the universal right of all human beings to pursue happiness.

To commemorate the day, the UN has enlisted some well known songwriters, including Ed Sheeran, James Blunt, David Guetta and John Legend, to assemble what they are calling “The World’s Happiest Playlist.” The UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon - who personally recommends Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” - describes the power of this playlist in this way: “On this day we are using the universal language of music to show solidarity with the millions of people around the world suffering from poverty, human rights abuses, humanitarian crises and the effects of environmental degradation and climate change.” [1]

Naturally, this all makes me wonder what song titles you would recommend to this list.  What songs put a jump in your step and a lift to your spirits?  What songs have the power to buoy your soul in your toughest moments, and give you courage to sustain you when life is difficult? 

For what it’s worth, my three songs are:

·      “Linus and Lucy” by the Vince Guaraldi Trio.  That song returns me to the innocence of my childhood.  And it makes me want to dance like Snoopy.
·      “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong.  It brims with so much optimism and hope that I want it played at my funeral some day.
·      “Sunshine on My Shoulders” by John Denver.  It’s hard to pick just one John Denver song for this list, but I’ll go with the one that actually contains the word “happy.”

I’d love to hear your recommendations, but more importantly, I’d love for you to join us for worship this Sunday, when we continue our sermon series on how to have a cross-shaped character.  This week, we’ll take a look at the concept of joy, which is one of the Bible’s favorite words.  It appears over 170 times throughout the Scriptures.  Jesus used the word almost twenty times in his public teaching and ministry.  Paul used the word two dozen times throughout his letters to the churches.  

Yet joy is one of the most elusive concepts in the Christian life.  We know what it means to be happy, but joy is not the same as happiness.  Happiness is contingent on your circumstances, on your situation.  Happiness is what you feel when something good is happening to you or around you.  It comes and it goes, depending on whether or not you are having a good day, or a bad day. Happiness flees and fades. 

But joy is much more constant.  Its roots in the Greek language, which we will explore this Sunday, suggest a steady, constant, unwavering acknowledgment of something good in one’s life.  And what is that source of joy?

Perhaps it is best summarized by the words of St. Patrick, whose legacy was much more significant than the corned beef, cabbage, and Irish beer we use to commemorate him today.  As a passionate follower of Jesus, and an ardent evangelizer of the gospel to the people of Ireland, he drew his strength from the one true source of joy:

“God, my God, omnipotent King, I humbly adore thee.
Thou art King of kings, Lord of lords.
Thou art the Judge of every age.
Thou art the Redeemer of souls.
Thou art the Liberator of those who believe.
Thou art the Hope of those who toil.
Thou art the Comforter of those in sorrow.
Thou art the Way to those who wander.
Thou art Master to the nations.
Thou art the Creator of all creatures.
Thou art the Lover of all good.
Thou art the Prince of all virtues.
Thou art the joy of all Thy saints.
Thou art life perpetual.
Thou art joy in truth.
Thou art the exultation in the eternal fatherland.
Thou art the Light of light.
Thou art the Fountain of holiness.
Thou art the glory of God the Father in the height.
Thou art Savior of the world.
Thou art the plenitude of the Holy Spirit.
Thou sittest at the right hand of God the Father on the throne, reigning for ever.”

I’m sure this song won’t make the UN list this Friday, but it sounds pretty joyful to me!

Grace, Peace, and Joy,


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

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Prayer for Persecuted Christians

March 10, 2015

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

The freedom to publically exercise our religious convictions without fear of persecution is a constitutional right that we should never take for granted. This is a country that neither establishes one religion for all of its citizens nor prohibits them from practicing their beliefs. And everything we do as a church, from gathering in worship to performing acts of service, is protected under the very freedoms that we enjoy.

But neither should those freedoms be trivialized. Media personalities over the years have trumpeted ways they claim the American church is being mistreated in this country. Controversies over prayer in public schools, the display of the ten commandments in courthouses, and the recitation of “Merry Christmas” during the holidays might be portrayed as persecution, but in many ways they are merely trumped up expressions of the ongoing culture war between political and ideological factions in this country.

So we have to be careful about how we use the word persecution, since we live in a country that is blessedly insulated from so much of the real persecution that the church has suffered throughout its history. This is true especially in the light of the significant persecution that is happening to Christians around the world today.  Consider these figures from the non-profit organization Open Doors.  Each month:

·      322 Christians around the world are killed for their faith.
·      214 Churches and Christian properties are destroyed.
·      772 Forms of violence are committed against Christians, such as beatings, abductions, rapes, arrests, and forced marriages.

The temptation might be to place blame one country, or one region of the world, or one religion for these incidents. But these are occurring on every major continent, at the hands of more than just the ones we hear about in the news. 

There may be an additional temptation to lash out in anger, with the kind of retributive violence that perceives justice as an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. This response, of course, would be contrary to the very core of our Christian convictions about non-violence and peaceful resolutions to conflict.  Besides, Christianity itself is far from innocent, for its own cruelty to others throughout history. The Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Salem Witch Trials are all blemishes with which our own conscience must contend. And any hatred we have for Muslim people must be confessed and transformed, lest they feed into the kind of dangerous rhetoric and unbridled anger that contributes to today’s enduring cycles of violence.

The true remedy is humility and prayer. We can remember that on the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” But he did not say these words until he named blessedness for the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers.  Being persecuted never permits persecution in response.  Instead, it is a call to prayer, solidarity, courage, humility, and acts of mercy and restoration.

To that end, I was grateful over the weekend to meet and get to know Bishop Gary Mueller, who presides over the Arkansas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.  I was there to speak to their Veritas Conference, a gathering of nearly 1,300 amazing Methodist youth and their leaders.

He told me that a week ago, at a Bishops’ gathering in Nashville, he was having breakfast with my Florida Bishop, Ken Carter, and they openly shared their mutual concern for persecuted Christians around the world. As a response, they have written the following Prayer for Persecuted Christians, which they hope will be shared by Bishops with their Conferences and churches throughout the connection. It is their desire that this prayer might raise awareness and elicit a humble spirit of petition for those who are suffering today. 

We concluded a powerful weekend of worship services with the youth by having Bishop Mueller invite all of us to recite the prayer in unison.  It was stirring to hear over a thousand youth say this prayer together, and it was a reminder of our global solidarity with brothers and sisters around the world.


God of us all,

You love us so passionately that you sent Your Son to help us experience the fullness of divine love. And while we love you, we are not often asked to risk our lives because of our faith.

This is not true for many of our sisters and brothers in Christ. Our hearts break as we see more of them suffering and dying simply because they are living as disciples of Jesus.

We pray for their safety and sanctuary. We pray that you will give them grace in suffering.  We are humbled by the witness of these martyred for their faith.  We pray for their persecutors, and that acts of violence and persecution will cease.

Help us to grow in our commitment to live as Jesus' disciples. Remind us that we are the One Body of Christ: when one member suffers, all suffer. Stir us to pray unceasingly. And empower us to speak boldly.

We pray all of this in the name of our Savior and Lord, Jesus the Christ.


Bishops Mueller and Carter are asking churches to include this prayer during worship on March 22, which we will do here at St. Paul’s.  But they are also hoping that this prayer might be exercised in our own private devotions. So I am asking you to consider using it in your own prayer life over these weeks of Lent.  Together, let us pray for the persecuted. And let us pray for our own response, that we might be meek, merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers.

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


The following is a statement from our District Superintendent Tom Carver, read last Sunday by our Staff-Parish Chairperson John Chalstrom: 

As the chairperson of our Staff Parish Relations Committee I have a special announcement to make.

I am very pleased to announce that Bishop Julius Calvin Trimble and his cabinet have appointed Pastor Cris Decious to become the pastor of St Pauls United Methodist Church beginning in late June of this year.

Pastor Cris is currently serving as the pastor of the Minburn, Redfield and  Dexter United Methodist Churches in central Iowa.   He and his wife, Jennifer are the parents of Elijah, Noah and Grace. 

In the coming days we will want to enjoy the time we will have with Pastor Magrey, Grace and Maddy and then give them a good send off.

We can begin now to pray for Pastor Cris and his family as they prepare to come and be part of our church family.  In addition to praying for our congregation and especially our Staff Parish Relations Committee, we should also remember the Minburn, Redfield and  Dexter congregations as we all prepare for this transition.

The Scriptures promise us that God goes with us through the changing seasons of our lives.  May we claim that promise in the days ahead as we anticipate God's future.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Emily's Oz

March 3, 2015

Dear St. Paul’s Family,

If you watched last week’s broadcast of the Academy Awards, you may remember seeing a commercial involving 7-year old Emily Groves of Bettendorf, Iowa.  There are two immediate things to know about Emily: 1) she loves the movie Wizard of Oz, and 2) she has been blind since birth.

But to hear Emily talk, you would think she has personally been to Oz herself. In her imagination, the Tin Man is thinner than a normal human since he has no heart, and has big feet shaped like a giant toe. The scarecrow has long arms and long fingernails, teeth made out of wood, and tubes sticking out of his chest to shoot chemicals at birds. The cowardly lion? Just the size of a chihuahua.  “He’s tiny,” Emily says, “because he has no courage.”  And Dorothy? “Looks like me,” she says with a smile. 

Oz purists might balk at the liberties young Emily takes with one of the most beloved classics of all time. Until you remember that the Wizard of Oz was not originally a film, but a book, by L. Frank Baum, in 1900. Until the film in 1939, no one pictured Dorothy Gale as a young Judy Garland, or the tin man with a funnel hat, or a lion that looked part teddy bear. 

That is what happens with the written word: it is first illustrated by the mind’s eye, long before it is rendered visually. Whenever we read a story, we are “blind” in a sense, and we depend on the pictures within our own imagination to derive meaning and enjoyment. Rarely do we argue with others who have read the same story about the superiority of our mind-pictures over theirs.

It’s not until the written word becomes visually literalized that we become purists over the smallest details. (Just look at the way rabid Star Wars fans treated George Lucas after his digital changes to the original trilogy.) Once we “see” the story literally, it’s hard to see it any other way. And there ends the fruit of our own creativity, our capacity to imagine, and our ability to extract fresh meaning from the text.


I used to be quite puzzled by the story of the blind man of Bethsaida in Mark 8:22-26. Some people had brought him to Jesus in the hopes that he might be healed. Jesus then did a surprising thing. After leading him outside the village, he spit on his eyes, touched him, and told him to open his eyes.

But he was only partially healed. And in effect, he was still blind. Jesus said, “Do you see anything?” The man looked up and said, “I see people. They look like trees, only they are walking around.”  It wasn’t until Jesus touched him a second time that the man recovered the fullness of sight. 

I’ve often wondered why Jesus was playing games with the poor man. Why not heal him the first time, rather than drag his misery along? Or maybe – and this is an even more controversial idea – Jesus wasn’t able to heal him the first time. Maybe he needed a second touch to bring him full healing.

But after reading the story of Emily Groves, I am starting to wonder if what Jesus did for the blind man was neither unkind or unintentional. Maybe that first touch was not accidental, but a reminder that blindness to convention can bring creativity and new meaning.  And maybe that second touch, while it restored the man’s physical sight, effectively brought an end to his imaginative sight.  In other words, perhaps the first touch of Jesus was as much a gift as the second. 

This story might remind us never to depend solely on our physical eyes in order to discern spiritual truths. The man regained his sight, but he ought not to lose his vision: his dependence on God and others, his capacity to wonder and be in awe, and his ability to trust in a power greater than himself. 

To reinforce that idea, just look at the stories that bookend this healing of the blind man.  Right beforehand, Jesus reminded them of the feeding miracle, in which the world saw paltry loaves and fish, but he saw it as a feast to feed a crowd.  And afterwards, there is the confession of Peter.  Whereas the world saw Jesus as the reincarnation John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets, Peter saw Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the God. 


Maybe what churches need today is a new way of seeing.  This is no disrespect to tradition, but maybe the Church has too long depended on its own physical eyes to discern spiritual truths. Maybe we are so quick to jump to the second touch of Jesus that we miss the value of the first. That first touch is the work of the Holy Spirit, prompting us to see with fresh creativity and imagination, to get a glimpse of the new work that God wants to do in the world, and to reaffirm our utter and ultimate dependence on God.

That’s why I think it’s significant that Jesus brought the man outside the village before he healed him. It is a geographic maneuver that makes an important statement to the church. Sometimes, The Spirit introduces new insights to the church through those outside the church:  The first-time visitor with the tattoos. The scientific doubter. The new Christian with the weird ideas. The gay man who feels shunned by his local church. The homeless person on the street.  Maybe the Church has gotten so used to seeing The Wizard of Oz in the same way that it takes a relatively blind person on the outside to help the Church spiritually envision the fresh work that God wants to do.


I don’t know what we do with all of this, but I do know what one director named Andreas Nillson did. He decided to listen to young 7-year old Emily Groves, and bring to life her vision of how she perceives the world and the characters of The Wizard of Oz. He and his crew meticulously built her vision of Oz and rendered each of the four main characters following the exact details of her mind’s eye.  And they put it all together for the commercial “Emily’s Oz” for the Comcast cable company.  And during last week’s Oscars ceremony, the world saw this fresh, new vision of L. Frank Baum’s timeless classic.

Change can be a good thing. It can challenge us to broaden our perspectives and expand our view of how broad and how wide the love of God really is. And sometimes, that change can only happen when we invite the points of view of those on the outside, who are blind to the traditional ways of seeing, but awakened to the way that God wants to do a new thing.

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


This weekend, I have the privilege of speaking to about 1,100 Methodist youth in Arkansas for their Conference’s annual Veritas gathering. I will be gone from Friday morning to Sunday night, preaching five sermons to them during that time. I appreciate your prayers for safe travel, and for the Spirit’s movement through me and those in attendance. I’m grateful to Dave Orthmann, who will provide the sermon for you this Sunday.