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Devotions from Fourth Presbyterian Church

February 1–2
February 3–9
February 10–16
February 17–23
February 24–28


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February 1, 2019               

Today’s Scripture Reading | Mark 6:47–56

Reflection
Composer Stephen Paulus is probably best known for the magnificent choral work Pilgrim’s Hymn. It begins with the words “Even before we call on your name, to ask you, O God, as we seek for the words to glorify you, you hear our prayer.” It comes from the opera The Three Hermits, which is adapted from a story by Leo Tolstoy. On a fishing boat voyage, a bishop overhears pilgrims talking about three hermits that live on a remote island, seeking the salvation of their souls. The bishop asks the captain to go to the island. The bishop meets the hermits, who in turn ask to be taught to pray. After much frustration trying to teach and learn the Lord’s Prayer, the hermits finally, in a halting way, remember the words.

The bishop leaves the island and bids the hermits to continue to pray the Lord’s Prayer as he has taught them. As his boat makes his way across the nighttime seas, the bishop notices that the three hermits are running across the surface of the water. They catch up to the boat and inform the bishop that they tried to remember but kept leaving parts out and then could not remember at all. Humbled by the hermits, the bishop realizes they are men of great faith. He states the hermits’ prayer will reach God and he is the one who has much to learn about faith.

In our passage from Mark, Jesus sees the disciples struggling and sets off, walking on the sea. “Don’t be afraid,” are his words to them. And the sea calms.

There are many days in our lives when all we need is to hear the hymns, the prayer, the voice that says, “Do not be afraid,” that calm the turbulent seas of life. And he comes to us through the most unexpected and most humble ones, the ones of great faith. He comes with care and compassion. Indeed, indeed!

Prayer
Please come to us, O Jesus, with the words that set our fearful hearts at rest. Grant that we will get out of the way—with our agendas, our worries, our absolutes—and know that you come to us with surprising grace and instructive love. Amen.

Written by Lucy Forster-Smith, Senior Associate Pastor for Leadership Development and Adult Education

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February 2, 2019 

Today’s Scripture Reading | Psalm 71:1–6             

Reflection
We will never know what threat this particular psalmist was facing, but in some ways the specifics don’t matter. His or her voice is all of our voices when we are in times of trouble. We seek refuge in the storm, a constant in the chaos, and hope in the midst of hopeless situations.

Tragically, our world today is filled with such situations—families struggling to feed their children, patients receiving frightening medical diagnoses, civilians caught in the crossfire of war, refugees uncertain of where they’ll be able to rest their heads tonight, and far more. We have all known tragedy and hurt, whether it be firsthand, family or friends, or from strangers whose stories we have heard or seen. It is into a world of need that we too cry out like the psalmist, “Deliver us and rescue us; incline your ear to us and save us!”

Though we largely only speak about God’s presence during times when we feel blessed, this psalm nevertheless powerfully asserts that God’s presence isn’t with us for a season or two but our entire life long. Written from the perspective of someone in their later years of life (see verse 9), the psalmist speaks of God’s constant presence from the psalmist birth to the present and beyond. Though there will be seasons in our lives when we can do little more than lament, God’s presence even in tragedy reminds us that we are never truly alone. For that, we can be thankful.

Prayer
God of refuge and comfort, help me to know you are with me even when I cannot feel your presence, even in those times when it seems you are silent. Amen.

Written by Matt Helms, Associate Pastor for Children and Family Ministry

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February 3, 2019  
           

Today’s Scripture Reading | Luke 4:21–30 

Reflection
No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.

Given that this saying, with slight variation, appears in each of the Synoptic Gospels, it seems likely that some version of these words came out of Jesus’ mouth. Staggering.

How astute was he about people? He identified the oh-so-human propensity for discounting what is familiar, for defining other people by one thing we know or think we know or used to know about them.

Why do we do that? I suspect because it’s easy. Life is complex, and other people are the most complicated part. If we can have a little package of facts that we can use to know and predict what another person will do, it will make things so much simpler. Situations are predictable. Life is under control.

Ha! People around me—I’m talking about every single person, even those I’m related to and those I know intimately—have layered inner lives and intricate personal histories about which I understand very little. When I think I definitely know what another person is capable of, or who exactly he or she is, or isn’t, I am in dangerous territory. It’s probably pretty likely that I am acting precisely like that enraged and murderous crowd in the synagogue in Nazareth that day. It’s probably pretty likely that I don’t want to see God’s marvelous creating and redeeming power through the growth and evolution of those around me. It’s probably pretty likely that I don’t want to have my views of reality challenged, because that would mean that I might have to grow or evolve in ways that are unfamiliar or uncomfortable.

Like Jesus said, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.

Prayer
Jesus, you who understood what it was like to be stifled by others’ small expectations and limited vision, help me to welcome the surprising and to curb my tendency to be arrogant about what I think I know. Amen.

Written by Susan Quaintance, Director, Center for Life and Learning

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February 4, 2019 

Today’s Scripture Reading | Jeremiah 1:4–10

Reflection
Have you ever felt a responsibility to take action about something but doubted your capacity to figure out what to say or what to do? I know I have!

The book of Jeremiah was written in a time of trauma and tragedy. It describes the period before, during, and after the Babylonian exile—a period of war, loss, grief, and displacement.

Jeremiah was given a lot of responsibility and power despite the fact that he felt ill-equipped to answer God’s call. He was given the power to destroy and demolish, the power to build and plant.

In a way, we all have these same powers to some degree. With a word we can destroy someone’s hope. By our actions (or inactions) we might contribute to the destruction of a dream or perpetuate injustice. But we also have the power to build and to plant, to develop new possibilities, and to take a role in cocreating, with God’s help, new and renewed life.

Prayer
Holy God of all creation, help me to speak against injustice wherever I see it, and help me to see it more clearly and thoroughly. Put words in my mouth that need to be spoken and courage in my heart to help me act. Amen.

Written by Nanette Sawyer, Associate Pastor for Discipleship and Small Group Ministry

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February 5, 2019                        

Today’s Scripture Reading | 1 Corinthians 13:1–13          

Reflection
Today’s scripture reading is one that many of us have heard countless times over the years, particularly at weddings. Paul sums up pretty well what love is and what love should not be: love is patient, kind; it is not jealous, boastful, proud, rude; and the list goes on.

Love is patient. What has my level of patience been so far today? My daughter was dragging her feet getting ready this morning, and I was fussy with her several times. During my ride on the Red Line, I was getting very impatient with fellow commuters. Some folks stood right in front of train doors and made it difficult to enter and exit, among other things. When I got to my desk this morning, I sent off an email to a retailer complaining about the shipping time on a package I am expecting. Overall, I had very little patience, and I tend to be like that more days than not.

How’s my kindness level today? And how about my jealousy level? Paul’s description of love in this passage goes on, and right now, my love offerings aren’t quite up to par.

God’s love is patient, kind, and open to us all, even when we are not showing love to others as we should. As we continue through this day and beyond, what are ways that we can demonstrate the love of which Paul speaks?

Prayer
Loving God, as I encounter people on this day, help me to love them even when it is challenging for me to do so. Make my actions show others that your love is available to each and every one of us at anytime and anyplace. Amen.

Written by Briana Belding-Peck, Family Ministry Coordinator

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February 6, 2019     

Today’s Scripture Reading | Mark 8:11–26

Reflection
Today we celebrate the gift of sight. Now before you begin to ask about those who physically cannot see, it is spiritual sight I would like to embrace in this moment.

While some take for granted the ability to open their eyes daily, there are others who are unable to enjoy the beautiful array of colors and images of our world. Yet Jesus warns us about having physical sight but being spiritually blind.

Our spiritual sight is strengthened as we learn to trust in God and walk in Jesus’ footsteps. We must be intentional about our prayer life, with our actions unto others, our public Christian ministry, and our faith. We learn to see with the heart of Christ by staying connected to him!

Let us open our hearts as we are reminded that as we receive Jesus and believe in God’s ability to work within our world we gain power to see and understand the will of God.

Prayer
Heavenly Father, open our eyes that we may come to know you more each day. We confess that at times we have closed our eyes in attempts to escape chaos. We have denied some people access to wealth, health, and happiness by making their tears, their pain, and their presence invisible. We have doubted your power to heal our circumstances, and therefore we have been blind to the signs and miracles you continue to pour out before us. Forgive us, Lord, and renew our faith, that we may be fearless and courageous as we proclaim your wonder-working power. Touch our hearts, that we may boldly reach towards justice and declare truth in a world where many do not know you and amidst the evils that attempt to steal, kill, and destroy. Restore our sight this day, we pray. Amen.

Written by Jasclyn Coney, Youth Discipleship Coordinator

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February 7, 2019                      

Today’s Scripture Reading | Galatians 5:1–15

Reflection
Paul was working with the new (Gentile) Christians gathered in the Roman province of Galatia. Paul’s entire mission was to spread the good news of Jesus Christ and grow communities of faith. Paul writes letters to all of the communities with which he’s working to encourage and teach them the ways of Christian life.

Somehow, while Paul was away, someone gave this community another idea of how to live out Christian faith (circumcision and food regulations). And Paul is not happy. His letter is one long, angry, and passionate argument to return to the course originally set out. According to Paul, there is nothing we need to do to gain entry into the household of God. The grace of God in Jesus Christ is the only doorway by which we enter into this new creation.

Paul teaches that in Christ we are given freedom. Freedom in Christ is not an “individualistic,” “go-it-alone,” “anything-goes” kind of freedom. Instead, the freedom Christ offers is a “freedom for” rather than “freedom from.” We have been released from sin and are free to live for the purposes of God. This freedom is not a new set of rules or regulations but is about being set free for a journey into the cost and joy of Christian discipleship.

Yes, Paul is passionate about all of this, and it shows. For Paul, the Christian way is about love. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves—to love as God loves—needing to do nothing to earn that love.

Prayer
O God, in the love of Christ you have given freedom to live for you alone. Keep my mind fully aware of the grace you impart and my heart ever grateful for the unearned gift of your love. Amen.

Written by Shawn Fiedler, Ministerial Associate for Worship

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February 8, 2019                         

Today’s Scripture Reading | Isaiah 6:1–8

Reflection
An elder in a previous congregation asked me why we worshiped the way we did each Sunday. Was there any reason we followed the same order each week? While I sought to assure him of the centuries-old rhythms we continue to use, I now wish I had simply asked him to reread these verses from the prophet Isaiah. While these are not new thoughts, I think they bear repeating.

When we gather for worship, we enter into the mystery of God’s presence. Thus we begin by glorifying the Holy One with liturgy, song, and prayer. Then we recognize and confess that we have not been the people God calls us to be (“we are people of unclean lips”). And so we turn to our merciful God, confessing what we have done and what we have left undone, seeking forgiveness and new beginnings (“our guilt departs, our sin is blotted out”).

This assurance of pardon opens us to hear God’s word, which leads us to respond (“Whom shall I send? Here I am. Send me”). Thus we affirm our faith; pray for others and our common life; share our offerings of our money, time, and discipleship; and depart the sanctuary to serve God and our neighbors. Thank you, Isaiah! Thank you, guiding God!

Prayer
I am grateful, gracious God, for the ancient rhythms that direct our weekly worship. May our worship as a household of faith draw us together with one another and with you. Immerse us in your mystery, turn us around, and lead us by your word as you send us out in your service, following Christ our Lord. Amen.

Written by Jeffrey Doane, Parish Associate for Older Adults

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February 9, 2019                          

Today’s Scripture Reading | Isaiah 6:9–13

Reflection
Why in the world would God ask Isaiah to do this? Why would he send forth a prophet to speak to a people he already knew weren’t going to listen? Doesn’t that seem like a waste of everyone’s time?

God tells Isaiah from the very beginning that his words won’t bring anyone to healing. People won’t see or hear his message. And not only that, God’s asking Isaiah to do that for the rest of his life—until all people are gone and the land is destroyed. I can’t imagine Isaiah was particularly excited about this calling. What’s the point?

Fortunately for us, we’re not supposed to understand everything God does. But sometimes we can look back and figure it out. In this case, when I look back, it’s much easier to understand God’s plans. I can see that part of God’s plan was to have someone prophesy about the coming of the messiah so that hundreds of years later, when Jesus was born, there would be a prophecy to be fulfilled. And here we are reading about Isaiah’s service thousands of years later. Generations of people have read his story and heard his words. And so even though he may not have felt it at the time, all those words Isaiah spoke that fell on deaf ears at that moment in time had, and continue to have, a profound effect on us today.

Prayer
Omniscient God, you are more powerful than I could ever hope to understand. Grant me faith and courage to say yes when you call me, even and especially when I don’t understand your plan. Give me strength and perseverance to do your work, and bless me with people to support and nourish me along the way. In your Son’s name I humbly pray. Amen.

Written by Nicole Spirgen, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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February 10, 2019           

Today’s Scripture Reading | Luke 5:1–11

Reflection
Simon (who becomes Peter) is one of my very favorite characters in scripture. He always says exactly what he thinks and seems to be missing a mental filter. In the beginning of this passage, he reminds me a bit of a surly teenager who gets irritated that Jesus just comes along and acts like he knows it all. In my imagination, in response to Jesus telling Peter to try again to catch some fish, I see Simon rolling his eyes, pushing his hair to the side and responding with a salty tone, “We have been doing this basically all night long and have had no luck but, whatever. If you say to try again, we will try again.” Can’t you just hear the attitude dripping from his words?

Yet as soon as he does it and the fish fill the nets beyond capacity, Simon is also the very first one to recognize his doubt in Jesus and to repent of it. That is the other thing I love about Simon. Rather than get defensive or make excuses, each time he comes face-to-face with being wrong, he repents. He admits how he messed up, and he turns to God once again.

Simon Peter will engage this routine of messing up, seeing that he messed up, repenting of the ways he messed up, and trying to turn back to faithfulness over and over again in the Gospels. It is a beautiful picture of discipleship, for God never asks if we are there yet, if we have arrived at perfect faithfulness. God simply asks if we are headed in the right direction.

Prayer
God, help me to head in the right direction—in your direction of goodness and mercy. I thank you for Simon Peter this day and pray I might learn from him about how to be honest and how to have the courage to start again. Amen.

Written by Shannon J. Kershner, Pastor

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February 11, 2019                           

Today’s Scripture Reading | 1 Corinthians 15:1–11

Reflection
“I am the least of the apostles.”

I find myself an unlikely person to be here, writing devotions. I grew up unchurched, and I joke that I am a heretical Christian: there are whole chunks of creed and scripture I have trouble giving voice to. But I’m in good company. After all, there were so many vocal “heretics” running around in 325 C.E. that the bishops felt compelled to hold a meeting.

(And what happened to everyone who then found themselves on the outside of what was defined as Christian? Did they suddenly stop loving Christ? Did they stop wanting to live out Christ’s truth in their lives?)

I could have been content to not believe in Christ. I had a faith community that didn’t require it. I had a circle of friends who found it unfathomable. I could have continued to appreciate the music, the art, and the witness of the mystics and saints without feeling the need to be baptized or be part of a Christian community.

But I cannot discount the Christ-centered experiences I’ve had or the power Communion has for me. Despite myself, I was called. First to faith, then to Christ, and eventually to Fourth Church. And, I believe, all of us reading this today have been called too, in one way or another or in multiple ways over time, perhaps without even recognizing that call and likely often without understanding it.

And having been called, it is up to us to bring about his kingdom on earth.

By the grace of God I am what I am. By the grace of God you are too. What will you do with that grace?

Prayer
Blessed Christ, may I be open enough to listen and brave enough to speak, through your grace and for your glory. Amen.

Written by Anne Ellis, Program Manager for Congregational Life

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February 12, 2019                             

Today’s Scripture Reading | Mark 9:42–50

Reflection
Way back in what I laughingly call my misspent youth, I worked in a cutlery store on Michigan Avenue. High-end stuff, kitchen supplies, grooming supplies, minimum wage plus commission. And one day a woman walked in off the street and asked if we carried meat cleavers. Meat cleavers are not something most people keep in their kitchens. Most people buy their meat pre-cut. So meat cleavers were a big-commission item. If you sold one, your commission on one sale would be about half a day’s pay.

So I was on this. I had the cleavers out on the counter, explaining the difference between drop-forged and stamped, between high-carbon and stainless steel, the whole nine yards.

“Will it go through bone?”

Now, you’d think that would raise an alarm, but I was zeroed in on a big-commission sale.

“No, if you try to use it on bone you’ll just get splinters, and no one wants that.”

“Because my hand has sinned against God and I have to cut it off.”

“. . . Excuse me?”

“The Bible says so. Better to cut off your hand than go to hell.”

I looked at my coworker, whose jaw was on the floor. I quickly removed the cleavers from the counter and informed her that they were just display models and that gosh, we were fresh out of meat cleavers for sale. She walked out of the store and down the street. I turned to my coworker and said, “Did that just happen?”

I mean, come on. It’s a metaphor. Jesus was not issuing a call for self-mutilation. He was talking about sacrificing those things we hold dear, that keep us apart from God. It’s like the phrase “dying to self” is not a call for suicide. It’s a call to remember that the essential pronoun of Christianity is not “Me.” It’s “You.” It’s an admonition against clinging and a reminder to give things up.

Humility and generosity are the essential essence of Christianity, and if you lose that essential essence, you’re just not going to be salty anymore.

Prayer
Lord, remind us that we are commanded to forgo “Me” for “You.” Let us see ourselves in others and live in humility and generosity. Amen.

Written by Rob Koon, Coordinator of Fine Arts

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February 13, 2019 

Today’s Scripture Reading | Psalm 62

Reflection
“For God alone my soul waits in silence.” What a concept. Waiting and silence both seem to be rarities in our world, especially when facing trouble like David describes here. When our political, economic, and personal climates feel saturated with anxiety, my soul can barely wait for coffee in silence, let alone for God. (And yes, sometimes it feels like my soul demands coffee.)

Here, David is facing real trouble. Being “assailed” and “battered” by falsehoods and plots against him, an expected human reaction would be anger and retaliation. It’s clear that David is upset, even angry, but his response is to wait in silence for God? “David, you’re the King, for goodness’ sake. Take care of them! Remember that whole ‘an eye for an eye’ thing?” But David resists the temptation to misuse his position of power to get even with his adversaries. He keeps perspective. In fact, in verses 9-10 he even reminds himself—and us—that any human being at any level of power is “but a breath” in the context of eternity, and that misusing our resources against others is never the best choice.

David reminds us that power ultimately rests with the God of the universe, and that putting our hopes in our own or another person’s power is bound to disappoint. Does this mean we shouldn’t do anything when faced with problems? Certainly not—David was also decisive and active when the situation called for it. But he had the wisdom to wait on God’s guidance—and to take soul-rest while determining next steps—rather than act impulsively. May we do the same.

Prayer
God of power and steadfast love, thank you for providing refuge for my soul and deliverance from trouble. Help me to pause, waiting in soul-silence for your guidance. Grant patience and peace in my next steps. Amen.

Written by Sarah van der Ploeg, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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February 14, 2019 

Today’s Scripture Reading | 2 Timothy 1:15–2:13

Reflection
I never met a commissioning I didn’t like. Seriously, I think the church does something uniquely affirming and valuable when we bless and pray for people who have said “yes” to specific work in the church, whether serving as an officer, working on the Urban Youth Mission staff in the summer, or going on a mission trip.

At the core of the commission are the details people are signing up for: volunteering for lock-ins, being a friend among their fellow leaders, praying, studying, working. Those are the kinds of details we read here in Paul’s commission of Timothy to share the good news of Jesus: say the things you’ve heard me say; accept your share of suffering; follow the rules; work hard. Timothy needs to know the score about what he’s agreed to, so Paul gives it to him straight. Good for Paul.

But there’s more to a commission than a straight-faced recitation of how serious it all is. There’s also a promise. Verses 11–12 probably quote a verse from a hymn that Timothy would know from worship, something perhaps sung as often during first-century commissionings as “Here I Am, Lord” is sung at twenty-first-century ones, and Paul wants that hymn to be Timothy’s constant companion in all his work. Especially the words, “[God] stays faithful.”

All disciples are commissioned to “participate actively and responsibly in the worship and mission of the church” (The Book of Order). The details of how we fulfill that commission differ among all of us, but the promise is the same. No matter what limitations of circumstance or knowledge or commitment we may come up against, God stays faithful.

God stays faithful.

Prayer
Faithful God, you send us out into the world to serve, to share, and to announce the good news of your abundant mercy and grace to all. We take your faithfulness with us, so that the world may know that everything good comes from you and that you stay faithful. Always. Amen.

Written by Rocky Supinger, Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry

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February 15, 2019 

Today’s Scripture Reading | Psalm 1

Reflection
I love this psalm. I memorized it at one time in my life. During another stage I set a goal for myself based on it. That goal was that as I got older I would be like one of those trees planted by streams of water, always bearing fruit—even into my old age—and never withering.

Well, I am older now, and I know that there is a certain amount of withering that takes place whether I like it or not. But I still want to be like one of those trees, and I know it’s possible, because I see people who have succeeded. A couple in Evanston who exuded hospitality and joy in their younger years opened their home often to ministry groups for celebrations of God’s good work, fed so many with food and with love. There was another woman in her nineties on her deathbed. She could no longer really speak. But whenever anyone came into her room, she would hold up one finger, point to that person, and mouth “I love you.” There are the obvious ones like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. But it’s good to notice the ordinary ones, because they prove this goal can be achieved.

The connector among these people is their meditation on the ways of God. The psalm says, “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked . . . but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.”

The folks I mentioned centered themselves around the ways of God, the teachings of Jesus, the community of faith. That was the template through which they viewed life and how they should live. A tree planted by streams of water, always bearing fruit, never withering, providing shade and rest and beauty is such a wonderful image. It’s still my goal.

Prayer
Loving God, thank you for reminding me of something I would like to achieve, a way I would like to age. Keep putting in my midst those wonderful people who are like those trees planted by streams of water. They provide rest and shade and beauty for me. And I am thankful. Amen.

Written by Judith L. Watt, Associate Pastor for Pastoral Care

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February 16, 2019        

Today’s Scripture Reading | Jeremiah 17:5–10

Reflection
The prophet Jeremiah was nothing if he wasn’t hard hitting. The year is 594 B.C.E. The forces of Babylon have brutally conquered Jerusalem. Leaders have been captured and taken to Babylon. Jeremiah, the strange eccentric, does crazy things to get the attention of those whom he declared had blown it with God and were in captivity for good reason. His word to the people of Israel was a complete downer. Frederick Buechner reminds us that even Jeremiah’s name takes its signal from the word jeremiad, which means “a doleful and thunderous denunciation.” And there was nothing Jeremiah did not denounce. He even denounced God for “saddling him with the job of trying to reform” the likes of a rebellious pack of degenerates (Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures, p. 67).

But the same Jeremiah who leveled blame at the sinfulness, selfishness, and greed of the people also held before them the path to righteousness and steady conviction. “Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. That one is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the water and does not fear when the heat comes.” The first step on the way to God’s sustaining life-blood is through trust. Simple? Well, yes and no. If our very trust in everything is God, then that means  the gift of life and plentitude comes from God and is held with confidence that the recipient is ready to receive it and will use it to its fullness. And Jeremiah’s God knew that sometimes it takes a jolt to wake up the complacent or the downright defiant.

It happens most often, I am convinced, that when we find ourselves in captivity, carried off to a foreign land, we are brought face-to-face with the most basic, the simplest, yet most demanding reality of all: that of being awakened to the very face of God. Sometimes the face holds hurt, but more often that face is one of such love as we can hardly imagine.

Prayer
Help us, O God, when we get too full of ourselves, trusting in human power and strength. Though captive to this, we trust you, O God, to lead us from captivity to bountiful and adventurous life! Amen.

Written by Lucy Forster-Smith, Senior Associate Pastor for Leadership Development and Adult Education

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February 17, 2019  

Today’s Scripture Reading | Luke 6:17–26 

Reflection
The Beatitudes, as told in Luke, are signs that help us to identify what it means (and does not mean) to follow Jesus. They answer the questions “What are the characteristics of a faithful life?” and “How do I know I am living it?” Many of these affirmations and warnings will read as familiar or even obvious. They seem almost proverbial for those steeped in the stories and virtues of Christian life. Those who hunger will be fed. Those who are persecuted will be redeemed. Those who are poor will inherit the wealth of God’s reign.

But rather striking among these signs is the notion that those who mourn will laugh. After all, comfort often feels the most appropriate way to redeem grief. Laughter seems like a luxury. But Jesus seems to tell us that in the eyes of God what seems lavish and unexpected is indeed what God desires to give. Laughter is a signpost of supreme comfort and delight. When we trade barbs and jokes, it is an indication that we have shed our fear and distrust. Our anger or pain has softened.

In the everyday experience of following God and being church, where have you shared humor or given it to another? When you recall such times, perhaps you can glimpse what it means to experience the blessings of which Jesus speaks in this passage. We tend to think of the Beatitudes as in the future tense. These are promises yet to come for those who have risked following God. However, they are also present-tense signs of an unfolding reality. As we share in laughter, as we are unafraid to delight in each other’s company in the pursuit of love and justice, we fulfill God’s promises in real time.

Prayer
God of blessing, who overturns suffering into joy, increase our awareness of where your beatitudes are not just a future hope but a present reality. Help us to find and create precious signs of joy for one another as we seek to be faithful. Amen.

Written by Joseph L. Morrow, Minister for Evangelism

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February 18, 2019                    

Today’s Scripture Reading | 1 Corinthians 15:12–20

Reflection
“Let me remind you,” Paul writes at the beginning of chapter 15, “of the good news of the resurrection!” Jesus appeared to hundreds of people after his resurrection, Paul reminds the Corinthians. First he appeared to Cephas, then the twelve, then 500 men and women together, then James, then all the apostles, and then Jesus even appeared to Paul in a vision. The Corinthians already know this. They’re not questioning the resurrection of Jesus: they believe it happened. What some seem to be questioning is whether God will also resurrect them.

Paul goes on to give a beautiful analogy of death being like the transformation of a seed into something far more grand and beautiful and complete than the cold, hard, tiny seed. When the seed ceases to exist, the plant becomes itself. What looks like the death of the seed is really a transformation. God does this work every day in a million ways, and God does it with us, too.

Recently I was talking with a friend who nearly died last year. She had a classic near-death experience. She saw a small window, like the round window in the side of a ship. It expanded and grew and was filled with light. She described it as a portal of light that grew until it surrounded her. She saw people there who made her feel safe and comforted. She told me, “I had an experience that made me less afraid of death.”

I think that Paul, in his own way, is trying to help the people in the Corinthian church feel less afraid of death, too. Paul gets poetic when he says near the end of this chapter, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

Prayer
Holy God of power and grace, give me a sense of your grand perspective. Keep me rooted in you and unafraid. Fill me with a spirit of trust in your capacity to hold me, keep me, transform me, and guide me. Amen.

Written by Nanette Sawyer, Associate Pastor for Discipleship and Small Group Ministry

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February 19, 2019                

Today’s Scripture Reading | Mark 11:12–26

Reflection
There’s much in this passage that’s hard to sit with. First, Jesus curses a fig tree (pretty effectively, based on verse 20) for having no fruit even though it wasn’t the right season for figs. Then he causes a big ruckus in the temple despite the fact that people who came from great distances had to buy animals when they got there in order fulfill their sacrificial obligation. He goes on to say that if we believe we will get what we pray for, we will. (This feels rather Wizard of Oz to me.) But the real kicker comes in the last verse. God will forgive our sins if we have forgiven everybody with whom we have “an issue.”

Seriously? Is the message here that we’re supposed to defy the laws of nature, reject religious ritual, adopt magical thinking, and be superhuman in our capacity to excuse others?

Yes. And no. When Jesus tells the apostles (and us), “Have faith in God,” he’s reminding them (and us) of something critical. We will see miracles. The immutable institutions and traditions of our life will change. Prayers will be answered. We will do, and be, more than we thought we could. But it is not us doing the transformative and wondrous work. It’s God. It’s not us who have to know the precise outcome before we begin a good work. That’s God, too. When we judge something too big or grand or difficult or unlikely to pray about, it’s not. We can be audacious in our prayer, as long as we remember that God’s grace and power are not ours to control. Rather they are ours to marvel at, be grateful for, and acknowledge.

Prayer
God beyond all that I can imagine, help me to rely on you when I think I cannot do what is being asked of me or that the world cannot change. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Written by Susan Quaintance, Director, Center for Life and Learning

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February 20, 2019              

Today’s Scripture Reading | 1 Timothy 3:1–16

Reflection
Does anyone feel called to be a new church officer after reading this?! 1 Timothy’s high standards for the bishops and deacons who will serve the church are at once admirable and intimidating. Though these standards may reflect the difficult climate for Christians in the early church and a desire to present a respectable face to those who knew nothing of Christianity, there is no doubt that service to the church—both then and now—calls us to aspire to something greater than our standard behavior.

Early in my ministry I used to be very self-conscious about being a pastor—churchgoing certainly wasn’t (and isn’t) the norm for folks in their twenties and thirties, and I felt a need to push back against stereotypes that some of my peers often associate with Christians: that they’re judgmental, close-minded, and hypocritical. As time has gone by, though, I continue to find myself more interested in focusing on the positive aspects of my faith—serving others, self-examination, expanding my capacity for empathy and caring—rather than trying to directly push back against negative stereotypes that others might have.

Although it’s easy to read this 1 Timothy passage as a command to leadership to help Christianity look more palatable to the outside world, I instead have come to see this passage—and other aspirational passages from the early church—as an invitation to anyone looking to live a Christian life. Following Christ means that we continually examine our daily living—not expecting that we can achieve perfection but always desiring that we might be transformed into our best selves.

Prayer
God, I am grateful for this journey of transformation that you have set me on, and I pray that my life may continually be shaped ever closer to the one that you have called me to live. Amen.

Written by Matt Helms, Associate Pastor for Children and Family Ministry

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February 21, 2019 

Today’s Scripture Reading | Isaiah 65:1–12

Reflection
Imagine God as a vibrant adult eager to be sought out and called upon. “Hey, here I am! Hey, look at me. I’m over here! Hey, listen to me. I can teach you how to change your life for the better! Hey, I would be delighted if you engaged with me!” Waving arms, being persistent, yet at one point in provocation and frustration saying, “OK, have it your way. Don’t pay me any mind. But you will experience consequences for your bad choices.”

The people of Israel had gotten it all wrong. They were full of themselves, following their own agendas, which were evil in God’s sight. Instead of listening to God for guidance and surrendering to God’s direction, they engaged in empty acts of “holiness”: burning incense on bricks, sitting inside tombs, eating pork and strange broth, staying up all night in hidden places, making sacrifices in gardens. God responds, “But you who forsake the Lord, who forget my holy mountain, who set a table for Fortune and fill cups of mixed wine for Destiny, I will destine you to the sword.”

Some have simplistically depicted the God of the Old Testament as a God of wrath. But in this same chapter of Isaiah, God promises that his faithful servants will be blessed abundantly: filled with food and drink, with rejoicing and gladness of heart. The God we know in both the Old and New Testaments is a God of steadfast love who desires nothing more than that we are in loving relationship with God and one another, becoming who God created us to be. Sometimes we only learn righteousness through tough love.

Prayer
Gracious and angry God,forgive me whenever I go my own way and ignore you. Lead me to true life. Amen.

Written by Victoria G. Curtiss, Associate Pastor for Mission

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February 22, 2019       

Today’s Scripture Reading | Genesis 45:3–11, 15                          

Reflection
If we backtrack from today’s passage, we can recall Joseph being gifted a beautiful, fancy robe from his father. We remember the dreams that he had, in which his brothers bowed down to him. We also remember Joseph being sold by his brothers, out of their jealousy and rage.

Now let’s fast-forward back to today’s passage. Joseph comes across his brothers and tells them not to be distressed or angry with themselves over what they did to him in the past. Talk about some incredible forgiveness! I don’t know about you, but I would have a tough time doing that if I had gone through what Joseph experienced because of his brothers. I have found it difficult to forgive others for much smaller offenses, and I’m sure some of you have, too.

This Bible lesson reminds us that some family relationships are very troubled, and the lack of forgiveness can tear them apart. From as far back as I can remember, my grandmother refused to talk to any extended family and would only communicate with my immediate family. I have no idea what the fallout was between her and her siblings and cousins (who all are or were wonderful, funny, and loving people). They would call my mom frequently to see how my grandma was, what she was up to, and if there was any way they could reconnect. My grandmother passed away about fifteen years ago, and sadly those relationships were never healed. This lesson, however, shows us that even in a deeply troubling family situation, forgiveness and healing are possible. Joseph was able to forgive—and we can, too.

Prayer
Patient and forgiving God, help us to mend broken relationships. Give us the strength, the patience, and the love to forgive others. Amen.

Written by Briana Belding-Peck, Family Ministry Coordinator

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February 23, 2019     

Today’s Scripture Reading | Psalm 37:1–11, 39–40

Reflection
Remember the Steven Covey quote “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”? This aptly reflects the core message of the wisdom in this psalm written by the elderly King David. His directives are psychologically and spiritually sound and provide direction for people of faith on how to live value-driven lives during tense and anxious times.

What is the main thing according to this psalm? We are encouraged to trust God and stay calm and be free of worry. Trust is conveyed in directives such as delighting in, dwelling in, resting in, and committing to our relationship with the Divine. Staying calm and not fretting is another main directive.

As a strategy for staying calm David repeatedly tells us not to focus on the wrongdoing of others. When we blame others, we become polarized and there is a shadowy tendency to view those with whom we disagree as bad.

What will last is our righteousness, which means right living in relationship with God. If we focus on the values of truthfulness, justice, and trusting God, the psalmist reassures us that God will use it to bring more light into our lives and the lives of others. The desires of our hearts will become a reality.

In the movie The Year of Living Dangerously, the main thing is characterized as “adding your light to the sum of light around you.” In summary, the main thing is having faith and our relationship with the Divine as the basis of our values, which in turn drives choices and actions. That is what will add light and have lasting impact.

Prayer
O God, help me strengthen and deepen my relationship with you so I can stay calm, focused, and trusting, reflecting your love and light outward. Amen

Written by Thomas Schemper, Director,
Replogle Center for Counseling and Well-Being

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February 24, 2019                 

Today’s Scripture Reading | Luke 6:27–38

Reflection
For me, this scripture presents a challenging command. To be perfectly honest, I get defensive when I read “Love your enemies.” It seems easy to be good to those who treat me well. In contrast, I find it difficult to love people who cause me some form of emotional stress, such as anger or heartache.

All of us have enemies. An enemy can be the result of an unintended consequence, or a variation in character may lead to a strained relationship. Other times individuals may dislike you for no apparent reason. Regardless of how you get the enemy, Christ saying we are to love our enemies is not intended as a simple suggestion.

Everyone has a reason for not loving an enemy. How many times have you heard “She did it to me first,” “They simply don’t understand,” “They don’t see things the same way I do.” All of us have justification for holding ill feelings toward others.

You may think it impossible to love those enemies. With Christ-centered focus it may not be as complicated as you think. The formula for unconditional love is perfectly demonstrated in Romans 5:8: “God demonstrated love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Although we were out of relationship with God, grace and mercy was absolute. God loves us beyond our ability to earn it. Even in our errant condition, God does not hold a grudge or remember our shortcomings. God loves each of us unconditionally.

The next time you feel as though you have been wronged, remember the love God has for you and ask for divine help to share that love.

Prayer
Loving God, help us take the words of Christ seriously and to extend grace and mercy to others in times when we feel wronged. Amen.

Written by Robert Crouch, Director of Volunteer Ministry

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February 25, 2019 

Today’s Scripture Reading | Matthew 24:3–14

Reflection
In today’s reading, Jesus provides his own view of the end of the world: apocalyptic images of wars, famines, earthquakes, torture, hatred, betrayal, false prophets, anarchy—they’re all there. Yet amidst all of that, Jesus provides hope: the image of a kingdom, and the one whose love endures will be saved.

I have often wondered if there really will be a “second coming” or even if there is heaven. Maybe the whole point is that we are to work for the kingdom here on earth. As Marcus Borg and other scholars point out, Jesus came to inaugurate a kingdom now, not in the future. Jesus says that here, when he says the “good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world.”

Several years ago, I led a Fourth Church mission trip to Ghana. I will never forget one night in the town where we were helping to build a church when we had our official welcome celebration. Everyone was in a festive mood. The service was filled with singing and dancing and the beat of the drums. It was an amazing experience to dance through the church with our new friends, singing, “We are marching in the light of God.” I remember the sight of the pastor holding her hands up in the air as she marched and the grins on her and our faces. It was overwhelming.

Certainly I do believe in heaven, but I also believe that there are times when we come very close to achieving the kingdom here on earth, and for me, that night in Ghana was one of them. It was the body of Christ in action. Hands in the air, feet marching, voices singing, and God’s love shining through.

Every time we fight for justice, every time we feed a person who is homeless or tutor a child, we are achieving God’s kingdom. And that’s a lot less scary than images of the apocalypse.

Prayer
God of heaven and earth, help me identify ways to achieve your kingdom today so that your will can be done on earth just as it is in heaven. Amen.

Written by Mark Nelson, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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February 26, 2019  

Today’s Scripture Reading | Matthew 5:13–20

Reflection
There is a reason salt is always sitting on my counter in my kitchen. It is the essential flavor for my cooking.It intensifies aromas, balances other flavors, makes meat taste juicier, and it can even preserve food. Salt goes in all of my cooking. I do not recommend, however, eating salt all by itself.

I remember in elementary school one of my classmates brought a plastic bag of white sugar and a bag of table salt, and they looked the same. I don’t remember why he had these bags, probably for some project or presentation. But I do remember that another classmate enthusiastically took a spoonful of sugar only to discover it was the salt bag. He would be the first to tell you they were not the same, and he was far less excited about having a spoonful of just salt!

Jesus tells us we are the salt of the earth. Mix in the right balance of us with those around us and aromas intensify, flavors balance, meat is juicier. Kept to ourselves, our God given-talent isn’t that special or exciting; when used for others, with others, they have power.

Prayer
God, thank you for all you have given me. Remind me to share all that I have with those around me, because that is when your vision is actualized. Amen.

Written by Katie Patterson, Director of Urban Youth Mission

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February 27, 2019  

Today’s Scripture Reading | Psalm 147:12–20

Reflection
I always appreciate how inspirational the psalms are, that they are an exhortation to be in awe of God’s provision in our lives. No matter what we’re going through, God’s work is apparent. The psalmists always seem to keep that in mind. In this passage, the psalmist even praises God for the snow, wind, and hail. I honestly can’t say that I have ever been inspired—especially in the midst of a Chicago winter—to raise up that specific praise.

But what really stands out for me is the praise for “peace within your borders” and being “filled with the finest wheat.” These are wonderful things to be thankful for, but what is striking are the unspoken fears behind the praise: concern about unrest happening around us and worry about going hungry.

With the evil that we see daily in our world, I often have fears of uncertainty about what the future has in store. But when those thoughts and fears seem overwhelming, it’s good to remember these passages and remind myself of God’s provision, which I’ve seen in my life over and over again. I’ve seen it before, and I’m sure to see it again, and it’s an inspiration to move forward and fight for God’s justice and peace in this world.

Prayer
Mighty Lord, I praise you for your love and provision. Turn my uncertainty and fear into praise and jubilation, that I would feel your grace and show that to all your creation. Amen.

Written by Jared Light, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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February 28, 2019              

Today’s Scripture Reading | Galatians 3:23–29

Reflection

This passage reminds me that the gift of salvation—unearned but available to all God’s children through grace—is the great equalizer among peoples. We are a spiritual family in which geography, race, politics, language, and gender no longer have the power to divide us.

Committing to a Christ-centered life is our common ground. Together we are free. We are lifted up and bolster one another. Our differences can be celebrated, without the taint of fear.

From the pulpit, we are encouraged to form our worldview through the lens of being a Christ-follower. One’s words and actions then come from a perspective of love and respect. We see others as spiritual beings and fellow children of God and, again, find common ground.

Years ago, when I was first asked to write a devotion as a member of Fourth Church, I was flattered, daunted, and challenged (in that order)! Over the years, it has been a joy to focus on a text and discern the wisdom it reveals about my own life, about living in community with other Christians in a secular world.

I liken the pursuit of seeking truth in scripture to a portrait in which the eyes of the subject follow you no matter where you’re standing in the room. Like those eyes, the Word finds each of us and reveals a living truth that exists beyond time and space. As Christians, the promise and gift of salvation through Christ is at the apex of that truth, and it frees us from fear.

Prayer
Holy Creator, be present with me as I attempt to lead a Christ-centered life. Lift me up when I stumble, and give me courage to lift up others, even when that’s difficult to do. Help me to see and be your truth and beauty in the world. Amen.

Written by Holly O’ Mara, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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