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Daily devotions, written by the staff of Fourth Presbyterian Church,
are available via email (sign up online or send addresses to devotions@fourthchurch.org), Facebook (www.facebook.com/fourthchurch), Twitter (@FourthChicago), online, and in print (from the church literature racks)


June 1 | June 2–8 | June 9–15 | June 16–22 | June 23–29 | June 30

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Scripture Reading: Mark 1:29–39

Reflection
One doesn’t read far in the Gospels before realizing that Jesus said and did a lot of things backwards—at least from our conventional perspective. The last shall be first and the first last; to save your life you must lose it; to be the greatest, be the least; to be a master, become a servant.

Here it seems as though Jesus is reversing the traditional sequence of the relationship between preaching and practice. You preach and then practice what you preach. Sounds reasonable. But here, whether intentional or not on the part of either Jesus or Mark, an alternate sequence is offered. Practice, then preach. Heal, then preach the good news of God’s grace. Look after the needs of others, then talk to others about the good news of God’s love.

Actually, if you fold into this part of the narrative the preceding verses (21–28), you see a rhythm between practice and preaching and preaching and practice. As the song says about love and marriage and a horse and carriage, they go together and you can’t really have one without the other.

But there is something else afoot here. What with the crowds clamoring for his healing touch, Jesus was becoming something of a celebrity. I wonder if Jesus’ need to pray early in the morning might in part have been to help remind him, as the embodiment of the fullness of humanness, that it was God who gave him the power to heal and that it was important for him not to get “too big for his britches” (as my parents cautioned me), even though as the embodiment of the fullness of God he may have had the right to do so.

Prayer
Lord, help me to be as quick to demonstrate your love as to preach about it, and help me not to be seduced into inflating my own importance. Amen.

Written by John H. Boyle, Parish Associate

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Sunday, June 2, 2013

Scripture Reading: John 10:7–17

Reflection
“I am the Good Shepherd”

I wonder what image pops into your mind when you hear these words of Jesus. Perhaps you immediately go to the Twenty-Third Psalm and see green pastures and still waters, dark valleys and overflowing cups. Some people may be taken to their Sunday School class or Grandma’s parlor, where there hangs a picture of a gaunt, European-featured Jesus, bathed in light, dressed in a long robe, with a shepherd’s crook and a lamb on his shoulder. 

Shepherds really are not those gentle, rather soft characters carrying tiny lambs around. They are rugged individuals dressed in jeans and overalls, roaming hills with dogs, either on foot or perhaps in a four-wheeler. And the sheep they tend are not the cute little lambs we see at the petting zoo but unruly, frightened, kind of stupid animals with a herd mentality and a peculiar habit of running in every direction except the one required of them.

It’s hard work being a shepherd and taking on the responsibility for such creatures—work so hard that it sometimes takes the life out of you. Thanks be to God.

Prayer
My Christ, my shield, my encircler, each day, each night, each light, each dark, be near me, uphold me, my treasure, my triumph. Amen.

Written by Calum I. MacLeod, Executive Associate Pastor and Head of Staff

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Monday, June 3, 2013

Scripture Reading: Psalm 100

Reflection
I once went to a coffee shop, looking for a peaceful place to do some reading. I had only read a few pages when a mother came in with her young son. While the mother sipped her coffee, the boy played with some toys. This kid was having a grand ol’ time—at the top of his lungs! I mean he was giving it everything he had. I looked at the woman, dumbfounded because she wasn’t shushing the boy. It appeared that not only did the noise not seem to bother her, but she had a smile on her face as she watched him. Trust me, only a parent could enjoy that!

I was reminded of a time when a friend was singing a praise song. Her voice was terrible, and she knew it. She said, “God gave me this voice, and I’m going to give it right back to him.”

I think she had it exactly right. As God’s creation, we have the privilege of praising God with our own joyful noise. Noise can be different for each of us. For some it is singing, and for some it is the way we treat others or the excellence we strive for in our work. Our joyful noise does not need to look or sound like everybody else’s, and nor does it need to be perfect. I think God simply wants to be worshiped with everything we’ve got and with all the uniqueness we were created with. After all, a parent enjoys their child’s joyful noise!

Prayer
God, you are so loving and faithful. With gladness and thanksgiving, I pray that you remind me that I am yours, and guide me to delight you with everything that you created me to be. Amen.

Written by Stacy Jackson, Executive Director of Chicago Lights

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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Scripture Reading: Psalm 121

Reflection
Psalm 121 is a “psalm of ascent,” a psalm sung to or by pilgrims as they made their way up to the temple in Jerusalem. It is meant to be a song of joy and assurance of God’s steady, guiding hand through an arduous and costly passage.

A pilgrimage is a special kind of journey. For example, Christian pilgrims journey to Israel to see for themselves the places where Jesus walked. A pilgrimage begins with a yearning and ends with a greater sense of wholeness. In the middle is the journey.

You could say that each of us is on a bit of an interior pilgrimage. We all yearn for something inside, something we believe will give us a greater sense of wholeness. The benefit of a more conventional pilgrimage is that there is a definite destination. One can buy a ticket and pack a suitcase. An interior pilgrimage is likely to be much less concrete.

The good news is that God honors both types of pilgrimage, both types of ascent. The One who journeyed here for us knows the certainty of dates and destinations and the ambiguity of hope. Christ knows the importance of our bodies, our selves, and our relationships. And so the words of the psalmist give us the reassurance of God’s strong, guiding hand: “The Lord shall preserve you from all evil; he shall preserve your soul. The Lord shall preserve your going out and your coming in from this time forth, and even forevermore.”

Prayer
Holy God in whose sight we do live and breathe, hear our prayer. The journey is sometimes long, and the night can be fearful. Guide our hearts to go where you lead us, to trust wholly in you and in your love for us. Be our traveling companion in this and every journey. Amen.

Written by Patty Jenkins, Director of the Center for Life and Learning

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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Scripture Reading: Psalm 135:1–4, 10–19

Reflection
I was once having dinner with a group of people when someone asked, “Why do you go to church?” A corporate lawyer was the first to answer, “Because it gives me time to reflect and to rejuvenate, and it connects me to something much larger than myself.” This connection occurs for me in one of my favorite moments during morning worship at Fourth Church, the Doxology at the very beginning of the service. This 500-year-old tune and text, a paraphrase of Psalm 100, unites us together into one voice, one breath, and one thought. We stand and sing “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” as we address the God who made us and all of creation. Throughout the service, we address God directly in word, song, and prayer. God is and rightfully should be the focus of our praise and adoration, our thoughts and attention, for “it is he that made us and not we ourselves.”

During a worship service I began thinking about how we address God, and I was astounded at how many times it occurs. It is easy not to notice this at all. Because it happens every Sunday, it can simply be taken for granted. As Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard said, the worship leaders are only the prompters in the drama; the congregation are the actors, and it is God who is the audience. Three thousand years ago, the author of Psalm 135 had similar thoughts when writing, “Praise the Lord! Praise the name of the Lord; give praise, O servants of the Lord.”

Prayer                       
O God, help me to seek you at all times and in all places, so that I may be made whole and free. Amen.

Written by John W. W. Sherer, Organist and Director of Music

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Thursday, June 6, 2013

Scripture Reading: Psalm 99

Reflection
Who, what, where, when, why. Those aren’t just the questions probed by journalistic endeavors. They’re also the questions answered by our faith story. Ours is a faith grounded in history, set in time and place. Ours is a faith of relationships—relationships between God and God’s people and between God and God’s people and the world. Ours is a faith story with whos, whats, wheres, whens, and whys.

Today’s psalm reminds us of that, of God’s working in the world, of God’s relationships with people. There is Moses, Aaron, and Samuel. The Exodus. Specific people, specific times and places and events.

And unlike the fertility gods of season and crop, the gods of accumulation, wealth, and dream, God is not one set apart, a one-directional god whose chief aim is seeking to be appeased and gifted, receiving sacrifice and praise. Ours is a God who enters into active relationship with God’s people—for their sake. A God concerned with executing justice and bringing equity. Ours is a God who makes his dwelling among his people, establishing his tabernacle among them, becoming Word made flesh.

The story of our faith is the story of a God who is present—present with generations in their time and their place, in all of their whos, whats, wheres, and whens.

Why? For God so loved the world.

Prayer
God of earth and sea, of time and place, of generations past and future, let me never forget that you are present in all of my todays. Great and awesome is your name. All praise to you. Amen.

Written by Ann Rehfeldt, Director of Communications

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Friday, June 7, 2013

Scripture Reading: Psalm 4

Reflection
A popular proverb says that a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind. If this is true, a peek at my desk—my entire office, really—raises some serious concerns about the state of my mind. I wonder if my brain is truly as cluttered as my desk always seems to be. I wonder what my ever-growing to-do list and stacks of books and papers teetering on the brink of collapse say about my life. Am I really this overburdened, hemmed in on every side by pressures that will not relent?

If I am honest with myself, I must admit that sometimes my desk does indeed mirror my life. And whether you have a desk or not, you may feel the same about yourself from time to time. It’s easy to feel trapped or smothered by our high pressure jobs, busy families, demanding relationships, high expectations at school, and a whole host of other stresses. It’s easy to feel claustrophobic in a city of skyscrapers and traffic jams and never-ending noise.

While these contemporary pressures may not be exactly what the psalmist had in mind in today’s psalm, this prayer for help in trouble speaks a word we all need to hear. Our psalmist characterizes salvation in terms of God relieving this sense of being trapped. “You gave me room when I was in distress.” In the midst of chaos, God provides room to be free and unburdened, sacred space to be with God and escape the things that assail us. What a hopeful promise—and what precious real estate!

Prayer
Gracious Savior, give me room when I am in distress and help me to make the most of the freedom you give. Amen.

Written by John W. Vest, Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry

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Saturday, June 8, 2013

Scripture Reading: Matthew 14:22–36

Reflection
Like his fellow disciples, brash and impulsive Peter was scared because the boat they were in was being battered by the waves. Scarier still was the ghostlike figure they saw coming toward them on the water. “Walking on water” is a term often applied to one thought to be a paragon of virtue and/or competence, a person like Jesus.

Peter was nothing if not ambitious. He often seemed to be pushing himself to the head of the line. So he threw out the bait to Jesus. “If that’s really you, Lord, command me to come to you.” Knowingly, Jesus took the bait. He knew Peter needed to learn something about himself.

What was Peter up to? Showing off or showing up the other disciples? Trying to prove his devotion and courage? Remember, this was the guy who later denied ever knowing Jesus. Was he just innocently eager to connect with the Lord to be reassured that all would be well? After all, he was scared. Or was he out to upstage Jesus?

Curiously Jesus scolds Peter because of his little faith. This is the same Jesus who on another occasion said that just a little dab of faith, about the size of a mustard seed, could do great things, such as move mountains. Like the “fringe” faith of those who were healed in a later episode. Go figure.

Peter in fact had a lot of faith in his own self-serving ambitious impulse, a faith that turned out to be all wet—literally. What he had little faith in was God’s grace that did not require him to show off. Yet it was Peter whom Jesus later tapped to be the leader of the pack. Talk about grace! 

Prayer
Lord, pull me up short before my self-serving ambition gets me in over my head, by reminding me of your love that accepts me as I am. Amen.

Written by John H. Boyle, Parish Associate

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Sunday, June 9, 2013

Scripture Reading: Psalm 92

Reflection
The things we say (and those we do not) are important. Stating something out loud can impact how we think about things and what we choose to do. In relationships with others, saying how we feel is important. It is important to tell each other when we are disappointed, because in doing that, we call each other to be better. It is important to tell each other when something is good or well done, because offering that kind of affirmation reminds us that our efforts have made a difference.

Psalm 92 is a psalm of praise. In praising God, we remind ourselves of the amazing things God has done and the wonderful hopes God has for us as God’s people. Praising God can seem like an unfamiliar act. God is so different from us that it is hard to know what to say or what to think about God. Often the world, which is more obvious to us than God, seems to indicate that God is not good or that there is not much reason for hope. This is why praise is important. Praise is an act by which we bravely stand before our creator and world and declare that even though things are not perfect, we know that God is in control, that God wants something better, and that we are called to take part in God’s plan. When we read the psalms and when we say them together, we defiantly declare that the way things are is not good enough; God has a better plan for us, and we are going to live it, starting today.

Prayer
God, help me to know that in the midst of a struggling world, you stand for what is good. Help me to hear your call to stand for what is good so that in ways great and small, your will may be done in the world. Amen.

Written by Adam H. Fronczek, Associate Pastor for Adult Education and Worship

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Monday, June 10, 2013

Scripture Reading: John 6:16–27

Reflection
In the story above, Jesus tells a crowd of his followers that they have followed him not because they saw his wondrous deeds of healing the sick and multiplying loaves and fish, but because they ate their fill of food. In other words, Jesus, seeing right into their hearts, knows what motivates them to follow him. He knows that they are looking for benefits. Following Jesus, for this crowd of people, is not an end in itself but is a means to another end.

We may have multiple and different motivations for following Jesus Christ. Taking the opportunity to teach the crowd, Jesus says, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.” Jesus’ words remind us that although temporary benefits can attract all of us, faith based on temporary benefits will not enable us to follow Christ through the ups and downs of life, through good and bad times. Accompanying Christ to the cross takes a faith that is rooted in a love for Jesus Christ as the Son of God and not as a means to some other end.

Prayer
Good and gracious God, you are the source of all good things. You offer me so many gifts in and through your son Jesus Christ. I am sorry that I sometimes confuse the gift of Jesus Christ himself with the other benefits made possible by him. Correct my foolishness, God. Fill me with the right appreciation, and make this the basis of my faith. In the name of your precious Son, I pray. Amen.

Written by Joyce Shin, Associate Pastor for Congregational Life

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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Scripture Reading: Acts 4:32–37

Reflection
During the middle parts of the twentieth century, many Christian thinkers reflected on the relationship between Christianity and communism. Communism (Soviet style) was the great opponent of the West and (in its “purer” Marxian form) a philosophical worldview that informed many aspects of politics and sociology focusing on the plight of the powerless. Opinion ran from Reinhold Niehbuhr’s pragmatic anticommunist stance (related directly to the prevailing Stalinist regime) to political theologies informed by the Marxist critique of capitalism as a dehumanizing economic system (for example in the work of Jürgen Moltmann and the development of liberation theology). British writer Barbara Ward once described the Marxian concept of communism as “one of the great Christian heresies.”

This may all seem rather quaint in these post-communist (and we are told post-ideological) times, and yet in today’s little nugget of scripture is this description of the life of the early church. No private property, common ownership, no needy people, and resources “distributed to each as any had need.”

One might sympathize with Ward’s description as you place that passage beside Marx’s famous dictum that what he called “higher communism” would be present when community resources were distributed “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

Whatever your view of the (perhaps rather dated) debates of the last century, at the very least we should reflect on what Luke’s account of the early church’s “stewardship approach” says to our society in which, as a newspaper report put it, because of the concentration of wealth and the generational nature of poverty, ours is a “rags to rags and riches to riches” country.

Prayer
We believe that God resides in slums, lives in broken homes and hearts, suffers our loneliness, rejection, and powerlessness. But through death and resurrection God gives life, pride, and dignity. Amen.
(Prayer from “Bread for Tomorrow: Praying with the World’s Poor”)

Reflection written by Calum I. MacLeod, Executive Associate Pastor and Head of Staff

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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Scripture Reading: Mark 1:21–28

Reflection
The first act of ministry Jesus conducted, according to Mark, was exorcism, the casting out of an unclean spirit. Jesus healed many people of their demons. Psychiatrist Rollo May defined the demonic as any natural function that has the power to take over the whole person. We sometimes say, “I don’t know what possessed me” or “I was beside myself.” Whether it’s a strong emotion, such as rage or hatred or passion, an addiction to food or work or wanting to be liked, or a compulsive habit we can’t break or a mindset that is shut, we have experiences of something at work beyond our control and intellect. We recognize both positive and negative forces unleashed in groups: when momentum shifts in a sports game, or a mob turns violent, or nationalism either rallies or blinds us, or everyone in a meeting falls silent because it feels too risky to speak.

Those around Jesus were amazed at his authority to cast out destructive forces. Though I shy away from singing hymns with militaristic imagery like “Onward Christian Soldiers,” I cannot dismiss that there is a battle between good and evil in our world. The good news is that the power of Christ’s love is victorious and can heal and transform us. As Martin Luther wrote and we sing, “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing, were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing, . . . and he must win the battle.”

Prayer
Almighty God, help me turn to you and trust that you are stronger than anything I am facing. Free me to surrender to your power to make me, and our world, whole. Amen.

Written by Victoria G. Curtiss, Associate Pastor for Mission

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Thursday, June 13, 2013

Scripture Reading: John 14:15–19

Reflection
In today’s text, part of the “Farewell Discourse” in John’s Gospel, Jesus tries to convey the unity between himself and the Father as well as reassure the disciples that they will not be left alone. Jesus’ sudden mention of the Advocate begins here and is not duplicated in other Gospels.

The Greek word parakletos carries a variety of nuances, so the Bible you use may show a different translation: Advocate, Comforter, Counselor, Helper, or Paraclete. To us, the word denotes God’s Holy Spirit. According to John, the mission of the Paraclete is to abide with Jesus’ followers after his death and resurrection, to live among those who follow Jesus’ teaching and example.

A quick Internet search brought up an unlikely hit: Paraclete Armor & Equipment located in North Carolina. They produce “custom-designed equipment for the specific needs of highly skilled and forward force members of the military and law enforcement communities.” Testimonials from soldiers in Iraq show Paraclete’s protective vests to be life-saving.

I am tempted to make some kind of connection between John’s Advocate and God’s protection, but the many nuances of parakletos do not include the role of physical defender. At the same time, a glance through the catalogue made me want to own some armor and equipment. I want to go out into the world prepared for the worst: bring it on!

But honestly, I don’t know what to think. Help me, God.

Prayer
Lord God, Jesus promised that your Spirit would live among us as a help and a comfort. I know that promise to be true, and I am so grateful. But sometimes my desire is for a weapon or the muscle of a boxer. Help me look to you for all my help and might and to walk in your way all the days of my life. Amen.

Written by Patty Jenkins, Director, Center for Life and Learning

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Friday, June 14, 2013

Scripture Reading: Mark 10:32–45

Reflection
Jesus’ life and death are a paradox that many of us in the church today still have trouble understanding. Like James and John in this story, we fail to recognize that Jesus’ death was intimately related to the central themes of his teaching. We refuse to acknowledge the connection Jesus made between selfless service and true power.

Instead, from our lives as individuals to our collective lives as communities and even as a nation, we view success according to the conventional wisdom of the world. Whether we admit it or not, we choose to understand power in terms of domination and control. We want to sit on thrones instead of kneel to wash feet in service.

But Jesus’ vision of new life among his followers is so radical and subversive that even after 2,000 years of being church, we still fall far short of what Jesus intended. To be sure, both as individuals and as collectives, we come close now and then. But like James and John, more often than not we delude ourselves and seek what we want instead of what Jesus wants.

What we need more than anything is to come back, time and time again, to the feet of our master and learn what he teaches. It took James and John and the other disciples a long time to finally get it, if they ever did. We must be just as diligent and pray that God is just as patient.

Prayer
Patient God, continue to instruct me in the paradoxical ways of Christ. Give me the wisdom to understand and the courage to act. Amen.

Written by John W. Vest, Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry

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Saturday, June 15, 2013

Scripture Reading: Psalm 13

Reflection
Have you ever been through a bad time in your life, but then on the other side of it, you felt like you understood yourself a little bit better? Maybe you had a bad breakup, but later you realized that you had learned something about what you were looking for in a mate. Maybe you took a job that didn’t work out well, but you had to go through the disappointment and frustration of that job in order to discover that something quite different was really what you were called to do.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann would call today’s psalm one of “reorientation.” The psalmist has gone through a time of disorientation, feeling let down, lost, and distant from God. Most of the phrases in the psalm express these negative feelings, and in the closing phrases, the psalmist expresses a renewed feeling of God’s presence. The renewed feeling is actually stronger than it was in the beginning, because the psalmist has experienced what the difficult times of life are like and knows that God is still there.

Sometimes we need reminders that mature faith isn’t about expecting life to be easy or expecting God to solve all of our problems and make us happy. When we acknowledge the difficult parts of life, cry to God in those times, and find our way back into companionship with God after feeling what it is like to be distant from God, we experience “reorientation” and renewal and come to know what it truly means that God has dealt bountifully with us.

Prayer
God, help me to know that you walk with me in the good times of life and in the bad. Help me to be unafraid to cry out in sadness, anger, and pain when times are tough. Help me to remember you when the sun rises on a new day and life feels good once again.
Amen.

Written by Adam H. Fronczek, Associate Pastor for Adult Education and Worship

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Sunday, June 16, 2013

Scripture Reading: Matthew 14:13–21

Reflection
It is hard to imagine such abundance—enough food to feed five thousand men as well as women and children and to have twelve baskets of bread and fish remaining. Even though the story of Jesus’ feeding of five thousand is quite familiar to me, it never ceases to astonish me.

I think we are called to pay attention to those times when we are astonished. As students of the Bible, we are called not to dismiss but to take seriously every astonishing occurrence, not because we have to believe everything we read, but because we believe in a God who can act in astonishing ways. 

Well-versed in stories of God creating the world out of nothing, emancipating slaves from an Egyptian empire, forming a people out of no people, raising Jesus from the dead, and in the stories of Jesus working wonders (feeding five thousand and making the lame to walk, the deaf to hear, the lepers clean, and the debts of the poor canceled), we are willing to be astonished. We are open to the possibility of miracles and to the reception of gifts. We know how to rely on the power of hope in the face of adversity. 

At a time when it seems like there is everywhere a shortage of what we need, a shortage of resources both public and private, it seems especially critical that we exercise our capacity to be astonished—astonished by new gifts to be given or by a Giver of gifts. 

Prayer
You, O God, give me more than I could ask for—more love, more grace, more forgiveness, more hope, more bread. I am truly astonished. So saturate my heart with appreciation, God, that I always feel full and overflow with your grace. Amen.

Written by Joyce Shin, Associate Pastor for Congregational Life

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Monday, June 17, 2013

Scripture Reading: Matthew 9:1–8

Reflection
In Matthew’s account of the healing of the one who was paralyzed, Jesus first comments on the community of faith surrounding the man asking to be healed and then addresses his spiritual and physical needs. He would not be meeting Jesus if it were not for the hopeful, faithful, and helpful people carrying him.

Perhaps you have heard Fourth Presbyterian Church described as “a large church consisting of many little churches.” One of the clearest examples of that characterization are Care Teams, organized around the needs of members of the church family experiencing a difficult or challenging time. As I read today’s lesson and visualized the friends of the man who was paralyzed, I thought of how Care Teams surround countless people in need with faith, love, and practical assistance. All of us, not just at Fourth Church, hear “It was my community of faith that carried me through those difficult days.” Particularly when faith is tenuous, it is indeed a blessing to be able to rely on the grace and strength of others to carry us home.

Prayer
Where I am paralyzed, dear God, remind me that you are always with me in the faces of those around me and with the power to heal my body, mind, and spirit. Amen.

Written by Barbara Cleveland, Executive Assistant

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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Scripture Reading: Matthew 13:53–58

Reflection
It should have been a joyous homecoming. Jesus, the hometown hero of Nazareth, returned after flourishing as a teacher and healer outside of Galilee. The question, Can anything good come out of Nazareth? (John 1:46), had been answered. Surely the people would be thrilled to have their native son return home! However, when they heard him speak, they took offense at him. How are we to understand this reaction? And what can it possibly tell us about our lives?

The Nazarenes appear stuck in time or, perhaps more accurately, stuck with their previous experience with Jesus. The questions they ask firmly root them in the past: Wasn’t this the carpenter’s son, the child of Mary? Don’t we know his brothers and sisters, all of whom aren’t that remarkable? Why is Jesus any different? They responded to the Jesus who was, rather than the Jesus who is.

It is a challenge to all of us, particularly those of us who have grown up in church our whole lives. Are we responding to the Jesus who was rather than the Jesus who is? Do we allow our previous experiences and understandings of Jesus to dictate our beliefs in the present, or are we continually devoted to hearing Jesus anew?

Prayer
Challenge me, God, to not try to capture your Word but to experience the fullness of your living Word. Allow my experiences with the risen Christ to startle me and push me into fresh understandings of your love and grace. Amen.

Written by Matt Helms, Minister for Children and Families

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Scripture Reading: Psalm 147:1–11

Reflection
Reading Psalm 147, I was struck by the amazing character of our God: a God who builds up Jerusalem, gathers the outcasts of Israel, heals the brokenhearted, whose understanding is beyond measure, who does not delight in the strength of the horse or the speed of the runner. What can our response be to such action other than to praise the Lord! But how often do you take time to praise the Lord? This language seems old-fashioned and quaint to us. We are bombarded by news of political protests, revolts, and economic downturn. So giving God thanks for what we have and praising God may be at the bottom of many of our lists. But those living in the world of the psalmist, the first audience for these words, were no strangers to protests and revolts and economic downturns. And yet in the midst of all of this, at scales much greater than what we experience today, they were called to praise the Lord. So today wherever we are, let us be reminded that God takes pleasure in those who revere him, “in those who hope in his steadfast love.” This love is always there for us. It is an unconditional love that we do not even have to earn. For this, the greatest gift, praise the Lord!

Prayer
Loving God, the psalmist reminds us that you determine the number of stars and give names to them all. You prepare rain for the earth and make grass grow on the hills. Even though we may begin to get fearful, you always provide for us. You do not judge us by worldly standards. The speed of the runner does not matter to you. So open my heart to your steadfast love. Open my heart to feel your love and be transformed into a person of hope. Amen.

Written by Liz Nickerson, Director of Congregational Parent Outreach

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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Scripture Reading: Matthew 15:29–39

Reflection
My wife and I are blessed with two wonderful girls, both of whom love to go shopping. As they consider purchasing yet another pair of jeans or one more hair brush, I often ask a question that has become a refrain they are quite tired of hearing: “Do you really need that or do you just want it?” There is a tremendous difference between really needing something and simply wanting it, and we can all wrestle with this question from time to time.

In today’s scripture passage, we can find many answers about what we really need. Jesus began by isolating himself and taking some quiet time alone, but soon he had the companionship of “great crowds.” What these “great crowds” needed was to be made healthy, and once they had their health, they needed simple food. Jesus needed compassion, literally to act with passion, as he healed them and then gave thanks over the meager food that the disciples could gather. Then Jesus had the humility to step aside and let the disciples pass out the food to the hungry people rather than doing it himself.

So what do we really need according to this story? Quiet time but also companionship; we need good health and simple food. We need to be thankful, have compassion for others, and be humble. That’s a pretty good list of what we really need.            

Prayer
God of abundance, help me to know the difference between what I need and what I want, and help me to be thankful for all that I already have. Amen.

Written by John W. W. Sherer, Organist and Director of Music

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Friday, June 21, 2013

Scripture Reading: Psalm 136

Reflection
People of faith are an odd bunch. First, we are people, so we grasp for certainties. At a time of great uncertainty in my life, a pastor taught me to name one thing of which I was certain. “I am certain that I have warm shoes to wear.” Or, “I am certain that if I call my friend she will talk to me.” No matter how small the certainty, it steadied me.

But we are also of faith. To be “of faith” is not simply to acknowledge great mystery, to cautiously point a finger at it from across the room. To be “of faith” is to step out onto the mysterious and know it will either hold our weight or catch us when we fall.

Psalm 136 nurtures our trust in the mysterious by immersing us in the wonder of all God is and has done in human history. Give thanks to God who does great wonders! God’s love endures forever! With a mighty hand and outstretched arm, God’s love endures forever!

Physician and patient Rachel Naomi Remen writes, “I used to try to offer people certainty in times which were not at all certain and could not be made certain. I now just offer my companionship and share my sense of mystery, of the possible, of wonder.”

I believe that as we mature in our relationship with God, we require less certainty and become more strengthened by mystery than anything else we have ever experienced. In the way of circles, mystery and certainty become indistinguishable as we rise up in the Grace of God.

Prayer
Dear God, many of my days seem ordinary, tiring, forgettable. Help me to grow in a discipline of wonder so I might bask in the mystery of your presence in my life and in my world. I will give thanks to you, for your love endures forever. Amen.

Written by Patty Jenkins, Director of the Center for Life and Learning

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Saturday, June 22, 2013

Scripture Reading: Matthew 17:14–21

Reflection
I think we always get a bit of a jolt when we encounter Jesus in the Gospels acting in a way that contradicts comfortable, childhood images of “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” However, as Paul would later write, we must “put an end to childish ways.”

There are a number of places in the Gospel narratives where Jesus’ words or actions might seem born of anger. One commentator describes this particular response of Jesus as “one of his harshest words of protest!”

What is it that elicits such responses from Jesus? It would seem here that there is a general inveighing against faithlessness (of the generation) and a particular challenge to the disciples as to the strength of their faith. It is worth remembering that this event takes place immediately after the high mystical experience of the Transfiguration on the mountain. It is as if Jesus is despairing of the broken ways of the world and the inability of the disciples and wider society to heed his message of healing, transforming love.

In that sense, the boy with the demon is a kind of metaphor for a broken world, challenging us with the question, Do we disciples have faith, even the size of a mustard seed, to be agents of healing and transformation in our world?

Prayer
We bring our broken selves,
confused and closed and tired,
then through your gift of healing grace
new purpose is inspired.
Amen.
(From the hymn text by Anna Briggs)

Reflection written by Calum I. MacLeod, Executive Associate Pastor and Head of Staff

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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Scripture Reading: Matthew 15:21–28

Reflection
Whom are we called to serve? If following in the way of Jesus is ultimately about service to others, then we must continually wrestle with this question. If we are called to empty ourselves and pour out love to others, we must ask ourselves: which others? Time and resources are always limited, so we must make hard decisions about where we direct our attention.

Do we give money to each of the many people we pass on the street who are asking for help? Or do we withhold our spare change and instead give more substantial gifts to the church or other organizations working to effect more systemic and just solutions to poverty? Or do we do neither and purchase another overpriced cup of coffee?

How do we balance concern for our own children with the needs of children in neighborhoods and situations very different from our own? How do we know when it is time for us to deny some of our own comforts and give sacrificially for the benefit of others? As a congregation, how do we prioritize our own genuine needs with outreach to others?

As we all struggle with these difficult choices, I take some degree of comfort in this story of a similar challenge in Jesus’ life. Some interpreters suggest that Jesus is merely testing this Canaanite woman with his initially harsh response. But I prefer to think that he too struggled with the problem of addressing limitless need with our legitimate limits. I can identify with his very human dilemma, and I can aspire to follow his faithful course correction.

Prayer
God of abundance, keep me attuned to the cries of those who feel as if they are dogs at the foot of my table. Help me to make faithful decisions about how I serve others from within my limits, yet may my love for others be as limitless as yours. Amen.

Written by John W. Vest, Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry

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Monday, June 24, 2013

Scripture Reading: Ecclesiastes 3:1−13

Reflection
These familiar words of everything in its own time and taking pleasure in the work God gives us to do remind me of something Frederick Buechner wrote in Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation:

“There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him.”

And because of that room to recognize or not, because of God’s presence in even the ordinary, God is present, Buechner reflects, “all the more fascinatingly . . . , all the more compellingly and hauntingly.”

“Listen to your life,” Buechner goes on to say. “See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

Prayer
Dear God, although I am able to sense the past and future, help me to know that there is nothing more compelling than to be present with each moment. Help me not to hurry through difficult times or linger in the pleasurable ones at the cost of seeing what you have given me to see. Help me to recognize the “business to be busy with” as it unfolds for me today. Amen.

Written by Barbara Cleveland, Executive Assistant

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Scripture Reading: Matthew 18:21–35

Reflection
To ask how many times one should forgive another reveals that one is counting—counting the infractions and counting one’s response. Jesus blows apart that framework with “seventy times seven,” meaning there’s no limit for how often we are called to forgive. Forgiveness is what holds a faith community together in both challenging and smooth times and requires us to grow in mutual love. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we subject ourselves to ill treatment again and again. Forgiveness means that we release ourselves from harboring resentment against another, and we release the other from our desire that they “pay for their sins.”

We may more easily forgive if we remember how much we have already been forgiven. This requires honest acknowledgement of our own shortcomings and our dependence upon God to accept us and make us new. Priest Henri Nouwen wrote, “As people who have hearts that long for perfect love, we have to forgive one another for not being able to give or receive that perfect love in our everyday lives. Our many needs constantly interfere with our desire to be there for the other unconditionally. Our love is always limited by spoken or unspoken conditions. What needs to be forgiven? We need to forgive one another for not being God!”

Prayer
Merciful God, “help us accept each other as Christ accepted us; teach us as sister, brother, each person to embrace. Be present, Lord, among us and bring us to believe we are ourselves accepted and meant to love and live. . . . Let your acceptance change us, so that we may . . . practice your acceptance until we know by heart the table of forgiveness and laughter’s healing art.” Amen.
(From the hymn “Help Us Accept Each Other” by Fred Kahn)

Reflection written by Victoria G. Curtiss, Associate Pastor for Mission

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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Scripture Reading: Psalm 103

Reflection
I am troubled by David’s command to “Bless the Lord.” The phrase “Bless the fill in the blank” has always made me uncomfortable. “Blessed are the blank” is OK by me, because it implies that God is doing the blessing. I only think of “blessing” when I visualize a queen bestowing something to a lowly servant, or possibly as something I’d say to a colleague who has just sneezed—certainly not something I would say to my Lord!

When I began reflecting on this devotion text, I was in the final week of preparation for a children’s musical. While trying to ponder David’s psalm and its meaning to me, all that I could hear running through my head was the relentless text of the closing song in the show. “Love the Lord” is the song’s title, and “love the Lord” is 99 percent of the text.

No wonder it was clogging my brain! Rather than trying to flush this distraction to better understand David’s command to bless the Lord, I finally figured out that I should just relax and listen. David’s command is as simple and as embedded as the songs we carry from our youth. Can you read the words “Jesus loves me” and not to hear the tune in your head? It is right in front of me, ringing in my ears for a reason.

How can God love us so unconditionally? “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. For as a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made,” wonderfully and beautifully by God.

Prayer
Bless the Lord, O my soul. Bless the Lord. Amen.

Written by Katy Sinclair, Associate Director of Music for Children and Youth

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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Scripture Reading: Psalm 65

Reflection
John Calvin, a particularly important ancestor to Presbyterians, declared in his writing that God is the “everlasting Governor and Preserver—not only in that he drives the celestial frame . . . but also in that he sustains, nourishes, and cares for everything he has made, even to the least sparrow.” Clearly the Israelite community that sang Psalm 65 in worship understood this truth long before Calvin began thinking about God’s relationship to creation. This hymn of praise gives us grand images of God’s founding of the world and also images of God’s continuing care for the earth and its inhabitants through the rains and waters that produce abundance. These are certainly appropriate images for us to consider as we proceed this week toward Thanksgiving.

Psalm 65 also provides us earthier and richer images for thinking about how God continually cares for us. Furthermore, where Calvin’s theological pronouncement makes God feel like a distant force, the psalm’s worldly framework makes it clear how present and close God is. The “everlasting Governor and Preserver” can be seen in the rains that fall, the waters that sit in the furrows of a field, and in the abundance that tumbles off a wagon into the tracks on the road. As we take in the beauty of blossoming spring and look ahead to the delights of golden summer days, are we able to see God in the things around us?

Prayer
Loving God, you are in the rains and rivers, watering all creation and providing us with what we need to live. Help me to see you in the glory of creation. And let me, like the hills that gird themselves with joy and the valleys that deck themselves with grain, produce a plentiful harvest of praise for you. Amen.

Written by Hardy H. Kim, Associate Pastor for Evangelism

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Friday, June 28, 2013

Scripture Reading: Mark 1:40–45

Reflection
The stories the Gospels tell of Jesus focus on what he did and said more often than on what he felt. In this particular story, Mark tells us that Jesus was moved “with compassion.” The word “compassion” can also be translated from the Greek as “indignation.” On the surface, indignation and compassion seem not to be quite the same thing, yet in the context of this story, it is likely that Jesus could have felt both compassion and indignation when a leper came to him for healing. Most translations highlight the compassion of Jesus over his indignation, Jesus may have indeed felt indignation at the suffering of the leper and even more indignation at how society unjustly treated people suffering from illness.

In his Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections, against the Puritan sensibilities of his day, the American theologian and preacher Jonathan Edwards argued that religion without the affections is no religion at all. Essential to true religion, though not sufficient for it, are the emotions. Like nothing else, the emotions stir us up and propel us to act.

The connection that Edwards drew between emotions and actions helps me to contemplate the intimacy between Jesus’ compassion, which inflamed into indignation, and the bold actions that he undertook in order to advocate for and be in solidarity with those who suffered. Though we don’t often see the emotional life of Jesus played out on the surface of the Gospel stories, we can imagine the deep and dynamic reservoir of emotions propelling him to live and die as he did.

Prayer
Most merciful God, every day I see people suffering. You have made me to feel things very deeply. Following the example of your Son, help me neither to neglect nor to indulge my feelings, but instead to be empowered by them. For the sake of your Son, I pray. Amen.

Written by Joyce Shin, Associate Pastor for Congregational Life

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Saturday, June 29, 2013

Scripture Reading: Luke 17:11–19

Reflection
It’s not really surprising, is it, that the Samaritan returned to thank Jesus. Jesus had, after all, restored him to life. The one whose existence had been defined by his physical condition had been returned to health. No longer unclean, he could now return to his family, his community, the practice of his faith.

But is it all that surprising that the other nine did not return to give their thanks as well? Might they not have been unable to contain their eagerness to be assured of their cleanness by the priest, to reunite with family? Is not sharing joy, celebrating joy, simply enjoying joy often a first reaction to situations, moments, events when gratitude is also a fitting response?

How many times does being caught up in the joy distract us from returning praise and thanks? And what about the smaller moments, the quieter joys—how often do we remember to give thanks for those gifts? The bedtime prayer my parents taught me as a child begins, “Thank you, Jesus, for this day.” Bedtime became a moment to reflect on the blessings of the day. And what I’ve found as an adult, when the lines of that prayer come to me at bedtime, are the many blessings of the day I overlooked. But through the discipline of giving thanks, the joys and blessings and graces of life, no matter how small, become powerful and redeeming.

Prayer
Thank you, Jesus, for this day, for blessings great and small. Thank you. Amen.

Written by Ann Rehfeldt, Director of Communications

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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Scripture Reading: Psalm 100

Reflection
There’s a lot of action in this psalm. “Make a joyful noise,” “Worship the Lord,” “Come into his presence,” “Enter his gates,” “Give thanks,” “Bless his name.” These actionable statements give us something to do; they give us ways to live like God’s people. But they are just that—ways into living. Our actions alone are not the way of life.

The psalmist invites us into more than just doing—to know that the Lord is good, to remember that we belong to God. We can rest in the knowledge that the Lord will always be our shepherd. In this season, that rest might be sitting down to talk with a relative or taking a moment to say a prayer of thanks.

And when knowledge and rest sound like more things to add to our checklists, the psalmist offers verse five: “For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” No conditions, actions, or checklists. Though our actions, knowledge, and rest are important too, in the end God is good, and God’s love endures forever. And there’s nothing we have to do about it. For that, I am truly thankful.

Prayer
Dear God, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Amen.

Written by Kimberlee Frost, Youth Ministry Associate

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