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Daily devotions, written by the staff of Fourth Presbyterian Church,
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February 1–2 | February 3–9 | February 10–12
Friday, February 1, 2013
Scripture Reading: Mark 6:47–56
It was a big day. The disciples had just come back from their mission, casting out demons, healing the sick, and they gathered around Jesus. “I cast out demons! I healed the sick!” And Jesus said “Nice job, but look—there are 5,000 people here. Give them something to eat.” And all these guys, who had just been going on about what they did, said “We can’t do anything.” So Jesus told them to pass out what they had and wow, it was enough. But they didn’t get it.
So that evening Jesus said. “Get in the boat. I’ll meet you on the other side.” Now, these guys, fishermen, knew boats, so they jumped in, cast off, rowed with all their might, and proceeded to get nowhere. And of course, Jesus saw this and “he came toward them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by.”
Think about that for a minute. He sent them off in the evening, these twelve strong men, and by morning they have made no progress. So he walked out to them—not to help, but to pass them by.
“Hey, Peter, John, James! Nice day, huh? A bit windy, is it? Well, catch you later!”
That’s right—he was messing with them.
But they, of course, freaked out, and as usual Jesus had to calm them down. He got in the boat, the wind died down, and off they went . . . missing the lesson of the loaves, missing the lesson of the wind, missing the whole point—that whatever they had accomplished was not due to their effort, but to the power of God inhabiting their effort.
Something to remember when we feel like we are rowing against the wind . . .
Lord, you always do all the heavy lifting. Please help make up my deficiencies, and remind me that I am an instrument of your work. Amen.
Written by Rob Koon, Fine Arts Coordinator
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Saturday, February 2, 2013
Scripture Reading: Ephesians 2:1−10
Paul declares those dead who follow the “desires of flesh and senses.” Food, drink, sex, status, luxurious comfort, and exotic adventure come to mind as such desires. However, other forces we may not readily recognize can block our aliveness in Christ.
The Enneagram is an ancient Sufi teaching that resurfaced in recent decades within Christian spiritual direction. It identifies nine types of persons differentiated by a particular need each seeks to fill: the need to be perfect, helpful, successful, refined, wise, obedient, cheerful, strong, or easy-going. Another characteristic that distinguishes these nine types is what each person seeks to avoid: anger, need, failure, ordinariness, emptiness, deviance, pain, weakness, or conflict. A person’s efforts toward avoidance or filling the need can be driven by patterns as powerful as an addiction. According to the Enneagram theory, one never changes one’s basic typology. That could be discouraging: left to our own devices we would be lost.
But the Enneagram also points toward spiritual healing made possible by our recognition of the limitations in what we habitually pursue and by our turning to God for balance and wholeness. The good news of the gospel is that we are freed by the grace of God, who created us in Christ Jesus for good works.
Open my eyes to recognize how I pursue false ends, O God. Help me depend on you with a humble spirit to transform me to be the truest and fullest self you created me to be in Christ. Amen.
Written by Victoria G. Curtiss, Associate Pastor for Mission
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Sunday, February 3, 2013
Scripture Reading: Hebrews 11:8–16
Text for this reflection: Hebrews 11:8
Catholic priest Thomas Merton once wrote a prayer that began “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.”
The beginning of Merton’s prayer reminds me of the words in prayer banners that were displayed in the church I served before coming to Fourth Church. The banner on one side of the chancel said, “The sign of God is that you are led where you did not plan to go.” The banner on the other side said, “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”
There’s a place in our lives for setting goals, planning objectives, making an attempt to know the direction we’re headed. Some of that planning is responsible. We are meant to be good stewards of the lives we’ve been given. The problem comes when our goals and plans, our charts and strategic plans, take the place of our faithfulness to God. Another problem comes when we begin to think that we have ultimate control over those plans.
Abraham’s trust in God is extraordinary, hard for us to imitate. I like to imagine Abraham looking back over his years, marveling at the course his life took. When I look back over my life, I sometimes wonder, “How did I get here?” But I know the hand of God was in the mix of my life, and while I wasn’t always obedient and faithful, God continued charting the course, even though I had no clue.
Gracious and steadfast God, help me to trust the unknown future of my life to you, for you are a God we can trust. Thank you for leading me to an inheritance that has been gift upon gift and grace upon grace. Amen.
Written by Judith L. Watt, Associate Pastor for Pastoral Care
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Monday, February 4, 2013
Scripture Reading: Psalm 145
I have the great joy of serving Fourth Presbyterian Church as Associate Pastor for Evangelism. The core of my call to ministry in this community is the task of inviting people from all backgrounds and every neighborhood to participate in the exciting things going on here and try to find a place in this congregation where they can live out their relationship to God.
As much creative license as I am given in my work, there are things I’m often told to stay away from: Don’t mention the word evangelism. Don’t go too heavy on the talk about God or Jesus with people who have been hurt by past church experiences. Don’t expect people to change their daily schedules or major time commitments to respond to opportunities to engage in spiritual practices. Good practical advice for all of us who are seeking to save the practice of organized religion from permanent relegation to the sidelines of respectable society.
What a stark contrast, then, do we find between this worldly wisdom about spreading the message of Jesus Christ and God and the exuberant praise of our psalm for today! How can we reconcile the call to vocal, unrelenting, completely committed worship of our creator, redeemer, and sustainer with the staid, reasonable, and safely ambivalent ways in which the world around us teaches us to express our views? More than our own enthusiastic worship and praise, the psalmist expects all of creation to join in. Does our own faith have room for a love and worship of God this large and loud?
God, my maker—you who deserve joyful and unending praise—free me from the bonds of society’s expectations and my own self-consciousness, so that I might more fully proclaim a story of my love for you. Through my words, and especially through my actions, may people receive a story about you that does not push them away but draws them more fully into communion with your Holy Spirit. Amen.
Written by Hardy H. Kim, Associate Pastor for Evangelism
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Tuesday, February 5, 2013
Scripture Reading: Mark 8:1–10
For the longest time growing up—and occasionally still today—I struggled with feeling bad when people went out of their way to help me. To ask someone to do a favor for me was really hard. Looking back, it was silly to think that way, yet I always did. I never wanted to feel like a burden. I would do the work myself and, as a result, there was no need to ask for help.
One of God’s greatest gifts is service, where we are able to experience God’s grace through acts of love and kindness. So whenever I chose to do things by myself, I was letting those wonderful experiences pass me by.
In today’s reading, God recognizes the loyalty and kindness these people are showing. God sees the struggle of his followers being without food for three days and knows that he must provide for them. This story paints such a clear picture of how God must feel whenever we go out of our way to follow him. Jesus did not ask those people to come and be with him for that long, he did not ask that favor, yet they followed and waited and their reward came in full.
Lord, I pray that you always help me open myself up to the help of others, so that I may see just how vast and amazing your love is. Amen.
Written by Ashley Elskus, Special Events and Membership Coordinator, Center for Life and Learning
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Wednesday, February 6, 2013
Today’s Reading | Psalm 133
We are living in a time when our country feels fractured and divided, and so this psalm’s call for unity is especially needed. Commentators explain the “kindred” mentioned here is not a single family group but, more largely, God’s people, all of us. In the images of oil— used in consecrating a priest—and dew—for watering the lands—we see that God holds nothing back. God lavishly and generously anoints the priests and then waters the land. The oil, running down Aaron’s beard, is an image of abundance. This costly oil was not rationed but lavishly given. The dew on Mount Heron goes on to provide sustenance for all the mountains of Zion.
These images of God’s generosity call us to be generous. To be unified also requires us to be generous. We must be generous in forgiving each other, in trying to understand each other’s points of view, in listening to each other. Without extending generosity to each other, it is impossible to be unified.
The psalm closes with the utmost example of God’s unity and generosity: “life forevermore.” The promise to be united with God for all eternity is the ultimate gift of both unity and generosity. It has been freely given to us, through Christ. So let us respond with wisdom from the psalmist: let us seek each day to live together as one, reminded of Christ’s ultimate gift and God’s abundant generosity.
Loving God, it seems we are all so quick to find the fault, to look for an ulterior motive, to be suspicious of others intent. Open my heart, this day, to extend generosity to others. Fill my heart with thankfulness for the generosity that you have extended to each of us through Christ. Help me to forgive others and understand myself as a unified part of your body in this world. Let the psalmist’s words apply directly to me: “Look at how good and pleasing it is, when families live together as one.” Amen.
Written by Liz Nickerson, Director of Congregational Parent Outreach
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Thursday, February 7, 2013
Today’s Reading | Mark 8:27–9:1
I want to know where I am and where I am going. It makes me feel safe and protected. So why does Jesus want me to lose myself? That seems to be the complete opposite of what I want. Why would he say that to be lost is to be saved?
I think part of what Jesus is hinting at is that my natural inclination is stay in the places and patterns where I am comfortable—knowing where I am and where I am going. It is thinking of my wants and needs first. It is returning to the patterns of being bitter at someone when they hurt me or the natural tendency to quit when things get hard. But Jesus wants me to move away from my comfortable patterns. He wants me to lose myself, to literally let go of the need to remain in my safe and secure old patterns and rather walk in a new direction: loving others in the same way I love myself; to not open my mouth and cut down someone who has hurt me but to instead work toward forgiveness; persisting rather than quitting. The problem is, in order to live this way I have to be willing to walk toward a place that is unknown in my heart, and I have to be willing to stay there even though at times it really hurts.
Thankfully, we have not only an example of this way of living, Jesus, but we also have a Helper. Before Jesus left his followers he said he would send a Helper that would continue to show them the way to go. And thankfully today, right now, in this moment, the Helper is here with us and will continue to show us the new way of following Jesus.
Holy Spirit, thank you for being near. Please help me today to walk in the ways of Jesus. Take me away from my old paths and direct me toward the path of love. Amen.
Written by Daniel Holladay, Administrative Assistant for Children, Youth, and Family Ministry and the Day School
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Friday, February 8, 2013
Today’s Reading | Isaiah 55:1–13
The prophet Isaiah paints a picture of plenty. He writes of water, wine, and milk and of bread and rich foods. None of it costs any money, and it is abundantly available to all. I found myself needing to read over the first verse more than once to make sure I understood that the things that usually have a price are being offered at no cost.
Sometimes I worry that when things are in such abundance, I will forget their true value. I find myself worrying about this when I compare my own childhood with that of my daughter. In particular, I remember having few toys when I was little. The toys that I had, however, were played with to their fullest potential. I made the most of everything I could do with them. I did not take them for granted. In contrast, when I look around my daughter’s room, I see so many toys and things that I am certain they are not being enjoyed to their fullest potential, and I feel sad at the waste of potential that accompanies abundance.
The prophet, however, paints a different picture about abundance. In the picture he paints, abundance does not lead to waste—waste of potential or purpose. He writes that everything God gives shall accomplish the purpose for which God gives it. “It shall accomplish that which I purpose and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
What are the things that even in plenitude still accomplish their purpose? What are the things that even if given abundantly and at no cost do not lose their value? What are the things about which we can say that too much of a good thing cannot be a bad thing?
Most generous God, give me wisdom to discriminate and discern what things are good and in what measure. Bless me abundantly with those gifts that can never spoil or go to waste. For Goodness’ sake we pray. Amen.
Written by Joyce Shin, Associate Pastor for Congregational Life
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Saturday, February 9, 2013
Today’s Reading | Mark 9:14–29
“I believe; help my unbelief!” To me, this verse is the essence of faith. “God, this is all I have, all I can offer!” Faith is a conversation with God in which we try to understand but, in the midst of our pain, can only utter desperate pleas with faint hope. Or we offer nothing but our weary years, dreaded fears, and dreary tears:
The moment in the hospital room when at the edge of death we pray sobbing as little children do, with the desire to be heard.
The moment when our life feels in crisis because of a broken home, lost relationships, or our own life in peril or our career ending, and we promise to change, if only God would hear us.
The moment when we say we are so thankful for God’s love and then gossip about our neighbors, humiliate those we think beneath us, and refuse to forgive those who have hurt us.
The moment when we say we are followers of Christ but do not actually follow in the way of the cross, which takes us from our own comfort zones and into the risk of love.
The “I believe” is not so much a courageous declaration of faith, but one desperately expressed, or for others of us, monotonously expressed. Then we remember that faith was never just about us. It is also about the One who calls us “Beloved.” And that is a comforting thought.
Lord, our God, you know who we are: People with good and bad consciences; satisfied and dissatisfied, sure and unsure people; Christians out of conviction and Christians out of habit; believers, half-believers, and unbelievers. . . . But now we all stand before you: in all our inequality equal in this, that we are all in the wrong before you and among each other . . . but also in that your grace is promised to and turned toward all of us through your beloved Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
(from Fifty Prayers by Karl Barth)
Reflection written by Edwin Estevez, Pastoral Resident
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Sunday, February 10, 2013
Today’s Reading | Luke 9:28–36
In scripture, mountains have symbolic meaning. Mountains connote holy space, threshold space—what scholars would call liminal, or on the edge, and this is a place where amazing things can happen. Of course it is on the mountain that Moses receives the law from God. It is on a mountain that the prophet Elijah encounters God, not in the power of earthquake, wind, or fire, but in silence, in the “still, small voice” of God. And here on this Mount of Transfiguration we encounter what Frederick Buechner says “is as strange a scene as there is in the Gospels.”
We are going together today to a strange place. Jesus brings the inner circle of the inner circle, Peter, James, and John, up onto the mountain, where they have this mysterious experience, or vision, of Jesus being transfigured, being changed in some sense. It is the same root word in Greek for the word metamorphosis. And then this vision expands as the figures of Elijah and Moses, representing the prophets and the law, are seen to be present with Jesus, as if those representatives of the Old Covenant are bringing continuity to the One who embodies the New Covenant, the new relationship with God.
Loving God, open me to the possibilities of living in your presence and being transformed, that I might more fully realize your vision of a world rooted in love. Amen.
Written by Calum I. MacLeod, Executive Associate Pastor and Head of Staff
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Monday, February 11, 2013
Today’s Reading | John 12:27–36a
In a commentary on this passage, Gerard Sloyan writes, “Human helplessness or humiliation is not the key to showing forth God’s glory, even though Saint Paul said something very like this. A strong God does not require a weak creature. A strong creature glorifies God best.” I completely agree, and a strong creature requires courage. This is the message of John’s Gospel: God and Christ are united in courage and strength. The idea of courage is a tricky thing. What is courageous to one generation might be different to another. Courage is largely dependent on the norms of society, which can also change. But courage, no matter the definition, is something to be honored.
John’s version of this story is different than that in the other Gospels. In John, Jesus is sure of himself. This is not to say that he doesn’t have any doubt or questions. In verse 27 we read that Jesus’ “soul is troubled.” But this does not mean Jesus lacks courage or strength. Jesus was growing and changing. This is not an act that comes at a small price. Growing in such a way as this cannot be an easy thing. He immediately follows that and says, “No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” Jesus says this to show strength and to glorify God.
Powerful God, help me to show courage in my life. I pray that you will guide me through my human helplessness so that I, like Jesus, can stand tall and glorify you by showing the world strength. In your Son’s holy name. Amen.
Written by Sarah Bennett, Director of Junior High Ministry
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Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Today’s Reading | Deuteronomy 6:16–25
When I was a child, my extended family would gather each Sunday over at my grandparents’ house for lunch. I have many memories from that table—the roast and Yorkshire pudding, the laughter, my uncle’s pranks—but the most vivid memories are the ones that included story-telling. My family loved to share stories with one another, and it was through that sharing that I gained the strongest sense of what my family valued.
Our text from Deuteronomy challenges the newly formed Israelites to pass along what they have been taught to their children. It challenges them not just to state what they value, but to tell the story of why they value it. There is something deep and meaningful in sharing stories with one another—a tradition that Jesus knew full well in his usage of parables. Many of us may have memorized the Golden Rule—love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself—but it was stories like the Good Samaritan that brought this rule to life.
We too are challenged by this passage to share what we believe, not just in creeds and formulas, but from the times in our lives when God’s Word was particularly life-giving. If we are to pass along our faith, that faith needs to be embedded in our narratives. We need to share those meaningful stories and allow their contained values to come to life.
Dear God, I am grateful for all of the ways that your Word has touched my life. Help me to share stories from my own experiences so that my life might speak to what you truly value. Amen.
Written by Matt Helms, Minister for Children and Families
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(from the church literature racks).