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Daily devotions, written by the staff of Fourth Presbyterian Church,
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December 1–6 | December 7–13 | December 14–20
December 21–27
| December 28–31

Monday, December 1, 2014

“Comfort, comfort now my people;
tell of peace!” So says our God.
“Comfort those who sit in darkness
mourning under sorrow’s load.
To my people now proclaim
that my pardon waits for them!
Tell them that their sins I cover,
and their warfare is now over.”

For the herald’s voice is crying
in the desert far and near,
calling us to true repentance,
since the reign of God is here.
O, that warning cry obey!
Now prepare for God away.
Let the valleys rise in meeting
and the hills bow down in greeting.

Johannes Olearius’s “Comfort, Comfort Now My People”
(tune: Genevan)
trans. Catherine Winkworth
from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal

“Comfort my people.” Thanks; I could use some comforting. So could far too many of the people I know, not to mention communities I hear about from news stories.

I confess my mood rarely coincides with the one prescribed by the cultural calendar. Whether I’m hearing a sincere “Be cheerful! Be joyful! Give more of yourself to more events, to friends, family, strangers!” or a more shallow “Buy stuff! Have more fun! Decorate these ways! Watch and re-watch these shows and movies! Listen to this music! And buy more stuff,” I am one who rarely exhibits or feels “holiday cheer.”

I appreciate that this hymn begins with the premise that what my people need is not more cheer but comfort. Things are cold, messed up, tragic, and full of loss, and we, collectively, as a people, need comfort. “Sitting in darkness, mourning under sorrow’s load?” Yup, that’s me. So what’s the comfort? What’s going to happen?

Pardon. Forgiveness. Warfare over. I was hoping for the end of literal warfare, the end of violence, oppression. But we’re talking about personal wars here. Wars caused by our own sins, our contradictory actions and desires, the wars we’re fighting in our own heads and that all too frequently spill out into our relationships, creating an external proof of our internal strife.

But the second verse is a call to action and a warning. Get ready. With “true repentance.” Wait, doesn’t that feel pretty awful? Repenting is to feel sorry, right? To feel rotten, contrite. That’s going to bring peace? Feeling terrible? I thought this was supposed to comfort me! Comfort me from my misery; don’t make me feel bad!

Is repentance something else? Is there some shift, some preparatory action I can take, internally or externally, that will ready me for God’s peace, God’s comfort?

What is preparing to be comforted? I can’t earn or create forgiveness, but perhaps I need to do something in order to feel it, acknowledge it. If I’m in a receptive state, might I notice that God is there? If open myself, will I see love, peace, comfort? Maybe in the form of a friend, in the abundance of blessings I forget to appreciate? In the form of an event, or an idea? Perhaps a momentary alleviation of sadness when I take a breath in and out.

I can’t count on what it will look like or how it will happen. Is this really a seasonal occurrence? Not really. But if the season reminds me to do the prep work, I guess it’s as good a time as any. I will take the season and try to get ready for a shift.

Dear God, I want your peace and your comfort so badly, and I keep getting in the way. How do I prepare for your presence? How do I repent and make myself ready to receive you? Please help me. Amen.

Written by Kat Evans, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Straight shall be what long was crooked,
and the rougher places plain.
Let your hearts be true and humble,
as befits God’s holy reign.
For the glory of the Lord
now on earth is shed abroad,
and all flesh shall see the token
that God’s word is never broken.

Johannes Olearius’s “Comfort, Comfort Now My People”
(tune: Genevan)
trans. Catherine Winkworth
from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal

These words remind me of one of my favorite pieces of music—Handel’s Messiah—which I first began to appreciate after seeing a Chicago Symphony Orchestra performance when I was still in school. The glory of the music lifts me up.

The beginning portions of the first three sections:

“Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, says your God . . .”

“Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain hill made low; the crooked straight, and the rough places plain . . .”

“And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed . . .”

Even reading the words, I can hear the music.

These words always reawaken me—and focus me on what really matters, especially when I get distracted with everyday things—what my daughter calls first-world problems. The words are not only comforting but hopeful. I can get back to basics and remember that even with today’s real concerns—war, persecutions, people struggling with disease and disabilities, lack of food and shelter for some—even with all that there is the continuing presence of God. My God is merciful and kind, patient beyond belief with my shortcomings as a half-finished human, and overwhelming with forgiveness.

The Lord is leading me in ways that I do not see, because my brain is too small and my courage is too weak, but I am continually comforted by God’s presence revealed in the people around me.

Lord, help me to be humble, to trust in you and your everlasting mercy. Teach me how to pray for your support each day. Guide me to reach out to those in our community who need my understanding and compassion. Continuously help me to be forgiving and not judging. With this season of lower lights and subdued evenings, show me how to make time for quiet prayer and to be open to your comforting presence. Amen.

Written by Pam Greanias, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Today’s Reading | Micah 5:2–4

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
    who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
    one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
    from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
    when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
    to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
    to the ends of the earth. (NRSV)

Advent is upon us and the familiar sight of manger scenes are popping up. There are hand-carved wood sets, painted clay Guatemalan sets, elegant porcelain sets, sets handed down in families and bringing back childhood memories, reminding us of the family members who came before us. They are beautiful in their variety but so commonplace that we don't really contemplate the significance of Jesus' humble birth which they portray.

Today's passage reminds us, “As for you, Bethlehem, though you are the least significant of Judah's forces, one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come from you.” Throughout the Bible, God chooses leaders from surprising places. He doesn't pick the wealthiest, best educated, or most sophisticated. God's leaders aren't in any of the places that we would be looking for them. So what does this tell us about God?

As we enter Advent, where might God be working in your life and in the life of our world? God is working, God is here, but would we ever have suspected Bethlehem?

Loving God, you are indeed present in our lives and in the life of our world. Help us to see you in surprising places this season. Open us up to a fuller picture of your presence and your purpose. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Written by Liz Nickerson, Family Ministry Coordinator

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Thursday, December 4, 2014

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, thou Wisdom from on high,
who orderest all things mightily:
to us the path of knowledge show;
and teach us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (tune: Veni Emmanuel)
from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal

Hands down, this is my favorite song of Advent and Christmas. It evokes the urgent longing we feel for God’s kingdom. In words and images drawn from the experience of ancient Israel it connects with our current experience in profound and moving ways. It recognizes the darkness of the world yet implores us to rejoice.

Especially this year, my heart aches for the end of exile, mourning, suffering, and pain. The tragedy of Ferguson and the systemic tragedies and unhealed wounds that the killing of Michael Brown has exposed cry out, “O come, O come!” The ongoing violence throughout the Middle East cries out, “O come, O come!” Those among us who experience loneliness and fear during this season cry out, “O come, O come!” The unwanted and marginalized cry out, “O come, O come!”

Emmanuel means “God with us,” and I must ask: Is God not already with us? Is there an intervention we are waiting for that will bring God closer, grant us wisdom, and show us the way forward? Or has that intervention already happened?

Perhaps instead of giving voice to our longings for God to be near, this song is an invitation for us to recognize that God is already here. As this song rings in my ears throughout this season, I will try to focus not on God’s absence but on the things that keep me from recognizing God’s abundant presence. I suspect that as I become more aware of “God with us” I will indeed find more and more reasons to rejoice.

God, who is ever with us, open my heart in equal measure this season to the longings of your children and the grace of your abiding presence. Amen.

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

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Friday, December 5, 2014

O come, O come, thou Lord of might,
who to thy tribes in Sinai’s height
in ancient times didst give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, thou Root of Jesse,
free thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
from depths of hell thy people save
and give them victory o’er the grace.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (tune: Veni Emmanuel)
from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal

Waiting is not a popular pastime. We Americans are busy, busy people. Why wait for a bookstore to order a book when you can download the e-version instantaneously? Why wait for the evening news when our cell phones can give us instant updates?

Our need for instant gratification has reached an absurd level: Amazon is developing flying drones for the fastest delivery possible. Short of a heart transplant, I don’t know what package needs to arrive with that kind of speed (or, wait, is Amazon shipping those now?).

The prickly enjoyment from anticipation is nearly extinct. Long courtships? Slow-roasted dinners? Three-hour movies? Forget it. Show us the highlight reel instead.

One of my favorite aspects of the Christmas season is actually the waiting. Our demand that we get what we want right now is frustrated by God’s design, and this comforts me. Through the centuries of waiting for a messiah, reproduced in miniature by the season of Advent, God reminds us of the value of patience. In expectation, we learn what is essential to our happiness and what is distracting and extraneous. We are forced to take stock of our time and our lives, which I hope we can bravely do. Without Advent, I fear that Christmas would begin to seem like any other holiday, a watered-down birthday party for someone we barely know, an excuse for mattress sales and three-day weekends.

Help me, Heavenly Father, to silence nagging impatience and to remember the excitement of anticipation, the joy of a promise, and the comfort of a hope. Amen.

Written by Jim Garner, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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Saturday, December 6, 2014

O come, thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (tune: Veni Emmanuel)
from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal

Advent is where the majesty of God greets us in the dawning Light of Love signaling us to come, to come at daybreak to meet God in that sacred space, a space for all. Arriving in that space gifts us with newness, new morning eyes, a new heart. The Light awesomely dawns.

The coming of Emmanuel, as presented in the words of this favorite Advent hymn, is in stark contrast to the darkness viewed each day in the every venue of our media bombardment. Out of our consciousness of the ugly, the call to all people to come, to rejoice no less, to come one, come all. The call is startling, magnetizing. The call to come opens wide, makes safe, disperses gloom. Come; find safe haven in being the gifted human God intended us to be, loving the other as we love ourselves.

And the call continues, follow me.

God becomes one with us to teach us the majesty of living as God's children, living and loving one another. Emmanuel gives us every reason to rejoice, to live in gratitude, to live in the contrast of God's gift, Dayspring, the dawning Light of Love.

Come, revel in the goodness of God, the miracle of being human, the Advent of God's Love made flesh. Come, and cheer, follow, open wide, make safe, disperse the gloom.


May gratefulness be our daily response to your stunning new vision of life and love in the coming of Emmanuel, God with us. Let us rejoice. Amen.

Written by Ruth Beckman, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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Sunday, December 7, 2014

O come, Desire of nations, bind
all peoples in one heart and mind;
bid envy, strife, and discord cease;
fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (tune: Veni Emmanuel)
from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal

“Bind all people in one heart and one mind.” How in the world is that going to happen? “All peoples” means all partners, all family members, all congregants, all co-workers, all citizens of a city, a state, a nation, all sexual orientations, all political parties, all religions, all cultures, all races, all nations. I feel myself getting defensive. The bar is too high; it’s beyond reach, and it’s a pipe dream. I don’t like to fail, to be intimidated, to give in, to feel inadequate, and I experience all of these reactions if I embrace this goal. I can’t do this; my ego won’t allow it. How about if we just sing the song and not think about it?

Emmanuel means God with us, and with God is the only way I can start to work on my resistance to being one with all of God’s other creations. Richard Rohr helps me know where to begin when he observes:

Wholeness doesn’t really overcome the problem, but holds it and transforms it as Jesus did on the cross. . . . Wholeness holds you. You can’t figure this out ahead of time or fully choose this wholeness; you fall into it when you stop excluding. And you are changed in the process. Everything belongs, even the “bad” and dark parts of yourself. Nothing need be rejected or denied. No one need be hated. . . . . You don’t have time for that anymore. You’ve entered into the soul of the serene disciple where, because the Holy One has become one in you, you are able to see that oneness everywhere else . (

Emmanuel! O God, be with me as I seek to stop excluding. Help me find oneness with you and all creation and be an instrument of peace. Amen.

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

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Monday, December 8, 2014

Today's Reading | Isaiah 9:6–7

For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
    and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
    He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (NRSV)

Reading these verses makes me want to sing Handel’s Messiah. And once you get it into your head, it’s hard to get rid of it. But that’s fine with me because it’s one of my favorite things about this season. Imagine that this music was written 273 years ago and we are still singing it every year at this time.

The joyous celebration of the coming of the Prince of Peace hasn’t changed much spiritually in the two thousand plus years since the actual event in Bethlehem. Every year Christians the world over celebrate the wonder of the birth of Christ in much the same way. A few years ago, a group of us from Fourth Church went to Israel and visited Bethlehem. It was a moving experience to be in the same place where it is believed that the manger was located.

Bethlehem is situated in the West Bank and is just six miles from Jerusalem. The West Bank is surrounded by a tall concrete wall in an attempt to keep peace between Palestinian and Israeli neighbors. In order to get to the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square, you must pass through a security checkpoint. It’s a stark reminder that keeping the peace in many parts of the world is a difficult task.

Isaiah 9:7 promises that there will be “endless peace.” I wonder how it will ever be true in my lifetime. My daily prayer is that each of us finds a way to contribute meaningfully to this promise. Sometimes it’s difficult to see how one person can make a difference, but the reality is that each of us has been given the power of the Holy Spirit to do so. It is up to me to envision and proactively seek a better world—one day at a time.

Creator God, your world is a peaceful place of hope and joy during Advent and can be all year long. Guide us in the ways in which we can contribute to making it so. Forever and ever. Amen.

Written by Lesley Conzelman, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates;
behold the King of glory waits;
the King of kings is drawing near;
the Savior of the world is here.

Fling wide the portals of your heart;
make it a temple, set apart
from early use for heaven’s employ,
adorned with prayer and love and joy.

Redeemer, come! I open wide
my heart to thee; here, Lord, abide.
Let me thy inner presence feel;
thy grace and love in me reveal.

Georg Weissel’s “Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates”
(tune: Truro)
trans. Catherine Winkworth
from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal

Today’s hymn comes from Psalm 24, often referred to as the Psalm of David. As King David declares the greatness of God’s reign in the preceding stanzas, we acknowledge the fullness and depth of the heavenly kingdom beyond our earthly comprehension. The verses that follow, shared in today’s devotion, call us to action as God arrives in infinite glory and splendor.

One would think our hearts and spirits are perpetually open to God’s presence. However, the psalm calls us to “fling wide the portals” of our hearts. How often, without realizing it, do we lock our hearts and our lives away, preventing God from filling us with love and grace? In this season of Advent, when we anticipate and patiently wait for God to join us on earth as Christ Jesus, it is easy to lock up and guard our faith. Or rather, it is easy for us to put our faith away for “safekeeping” as we instead focus on our earthly needs—holiday shopping, cooking festive meals, and making sure our decorations look just right.

All of these preparations come with the intention of great celebrations and joyful gatherings. But as we keep our energy and minds focused on these earthly expectations, we are left unprepared for God’s arrival at the gates of our hearts. King David calls us to imagine the beauty and grace of God’s kingdom (one much greater than his own), and we must joyfully invite God’s peaceful presence into our hearts at a moment’s notice.

O God of all kingdoms, let us be mindful of your nearing presence this season. Guide our spirits and prepare our hearts as living temples for your glorious reign. Amen.

Written by Jackie Lorens, Program Manager,
Chicago Lights Elam Davies Social Service Center

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Today’s Reading | Isaiah 61:1–4, 11

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor; and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes; the oil of gladness instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

. . . .

For the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations. (NRSV)

For me, this Isaiah passage has, in the past, reflected my general sense of Advent: one of joyful hope, expectations, and waiting for the future event of Jesus’ birth, a time of reflection and remembering our story. This year, however, I have found myself impatient, not of rushing the season, but of waiting; an urgency to be bolder now in working toward the hope and expectations for God’s kingdom on earth in a way that stretches my gifts. I have felt a need to seek a balance between reflection on the wait and the urgency of action.

So I considered what I could do and where I could do it in this over-the-top, busy month of buying gifts, wrapping presents, writing cards, seeing friends, finishing projects, etc. Should I focus on volunteering or donating more? Those options didn’t seem like enough. No, I decided I would engage in action in my daily encounters: I would practice consistently and intentionally seeking to see differently wherever I am and to listen differently to whomever I’m with and in so doing to focus on valuing each interaction with love and respect and the visioning of God’s kingdom on earth. Perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to play a tiny, tiny role to “bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted.” But honestly, I think I’ll receive more than I give, and learn more than I impart.

Dear Lord, you know me better than I know myself. Help me be your servant in the coming of your kingdom. In Christ’s name I pray. Amen.

Written by Linda Crane, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Come, thou long-expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our sins and fears release us;
let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art;
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart.

Charles Wesley’s “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”
(tune: Hyfrydol)
from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal

Unlike the early Christians who thought their Messiah’s return was close at hand, this familiar hymn reminds us, especially during Advent that we are still waiting.

As we continue to watch and wait this Advent season, we should remember that many hearts worldwide still long for release from sin and fear; from war, from hunger, from Ebola, from exploitation. Very much like the early Christians, we continue to rely on the comfort and strength we receive from the promise of redemption and new beginnings that Jesus’ resurrection represents. I find comfort in this knowledge.

May we remember that Advent brings hope for new life, new beginnings, a new world.

Our hearts long for you, O God. May we find our rest in you, our strength and consolation, and give us hope as we live into your promise of new life, new beginnings, a new world. Amen.

Written by Chris Gernand, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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Friday, December 12, 2014

Born thy people to deliver,
born a child and yet a king,
born to reign in us forever,
now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal Spirit
rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all-sufficient merit
raise us to thy glorious throne.

Charles Wesley’s “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”
(tune: Hyfrydol)
from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal

Each year I am struck by the contradictory nature of the Advent season.

Beginning in late fall, the holiday decorations come out in the stores and on the lampposts. Carols can be heard on the radio, in elevators, and even when you're on hold on the phone. The retailers launch their catchy and festive holiday campaigns and the pace of the crowds on the street and in traffic speeds up. Hurry!

Conversely, for me, with Advent comes a sense of quiet, reverent anticipation. The birth of our Savior is approaching and the story of that miraculous birth never fails to amaze me.

God brought to us the embodiment of his saving grace in the form of an infant—a baby! A tiny, defenseless baby who would one day give up his life to fulfill his father's promise to all his children.

A special birth unlike any others, so holy that an angel and the brightest shining star heralded the event, and yet so plain that it took place in a stable, with only his parents and the animals to bear witness.

Inconceivable. All I can do is humbly receive it and try to live out my life in gratitude for it.

Two thousand years later and counting, another Advent season begins, and Christ's birth is still witnessed and proclaimed. No acts of terror, no weather disasters, nor the outbreak of disease can diminish God's promise of grace.

A child is born and will save the world. Hallelujah, Amen!

God in heaven, I thank you for your gift of Jesus, who came into the world as a baby and lived and died to fulfill your promise of grace and salvation. In faithful trust and service, I ask that you guide my actions to reflect your love. Amen.

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

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Monday, October 13, 2014

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Today’s Reading | John 1:6–9

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. (NRSV)

Christmas lights aren’t what they used to be, and this is a good thing. Old Christmas lights were these little glass bulbs, they weren’t really bright, they got extremely hot, and they would break and leave lovely razor-sharp edges. Decorating was a lot more dangerous in the old days—it was a rare year when you’d get away without burns or bloodshed. And let’s not even talk about the wiring and the worries that a short or a hot bulb would ignite a dried tree.

Those days are gone, but that doesn’t mean that hanging Christmas lights has magically become an easy thing. Staring at the tangled mess that you swear you carefully coiled last year can still leave a lump in the pit of your stomach. Step outside and you can see city crews with trucks and lifts and every mechanical aid you could ever want—it still takes days, in bad weather to boot.

Preparing the way for anything is not the fun part. The holidays are full of chores—decorating, shopping, baking, wrapping, cooking—and it can seem oppressive. It’s easy to feel beaten down by the sheer work of it all. But without the prep work, there is no feast. It’s a dark time of year until someone untangles the lights, and that chore is made easier by the knowledge of how beautiful the light will be.

When all is said and done, those lights are lovely things when the days are short and night comes early. Nothing lifts the spirit like a beautiful light in the darkness. So, in this time when we celebrate the light of Christmas, let’s also give thanks for the ones who do the work so that the light may be seen.

Lord, you have given us all the chore of preparing the way for the light. Let us go through our work with knowledge of the joy that the light brings to everyone. Amen.

Written by Rob Koon, Coordinator of Fine Arts

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Sunday, December 14, 2014

On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry
announces that the Lord is nigh;
awake and hearken, for he brings
glad tidings of the King of kings!

Then cleansed be every life from sin;
make straight the way for God within,
and let us all our hearts prepare
for Christ to come and enter there.

Charles Coffin’s “On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry”
(tune: Winchester New)
trans. John Chandler
from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal

The word preparation encapsulates a lot for me—nervousness, excitement, uncertainty. When I began working as an event coordinator with the Center for Life and Learning in 2011, the notion of “preparation” always combined all of those feelings. I anxiously awaited my events in the hope that I had prepared myself enough for whatever may have come. Sometimes I felt prepared, and sometimes I did not! You can only be so prepared for some things, as we all know.
In this hymn, John the Baptist announces for the preparation of our King. I wonder what the people of Israel thought when they heard this. “What can I be prepared for? How do I prepare my heart for something that I cannot see or know anything about?” We all know they had no hand in organizing this “event,” so I wonder what they felt. What did the word preparation hold for them?

Advent is a journey—remembering what anticipation and preparedness means to each of us in the form of a gift, the ultimate gift, which will free us from all strife. We can anticipate only so much of what God has in store for our lives; the people of Israel knew only of a messiah. What if during this Advent season our main gift was “preparation,” like it was so many years ago? Not related to preparing for the perfect gift for a loved one, or preparing for the perfect Christmas Eve dinner, but instead preparing for only one thing. I think it would look quite different to each of us. “Let us all our hearts prepare for Christ to come and enter there.”

Lord, on this day, I pray for your guidance during this holy time. Help me feel the sacredness of this time through the preparation of my heart and soul for your eternal majesty, so that when I wake up on Christmas Day, your love amounts to the greatest gift of all. Amen.

Written by Ashley Elskus, Director, The Center for Life and Learning

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Monday, December 15, 2014

We hail you as our Savior, Lord,
our refuge and our great reward;
without your grace we waste away
like flowers that wither and decay.

Stretch forth your hand; our health restore,
and make us rise to fall no more.
O let your face upon us shine
and fill the world with love divine.

Charles Coffin’s “On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry”
(tune: Winchester New)
trans. John Chandler
from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal

These words call to mind a mother or father with their hand outstretched towards their child, and the child reaches out to them at the same time. The parent is there to guide the child into the world, keep them safe from harm, to teach them how to walk, and to do all of this out of love. At the same time, as the child reaches out to its parent, it does so out of the need for contact, guidance, safety, love, and to learn.

Anticipation at a moment such as this can become anxious if the child is reaching for the parent’s hand but the parent is not yet close enough to grasp the tiny hand. They reach, not only out of want, but out of need to be in contact with the one who loves them more than they can ever comprehend. As soon as their hands meet, the child and parent both relax and rest in the comfort of their embrace.

As we wait for a new morning, let us find rest and comfort in the embrace that Christ gives us, knowing that we rest in an unconditional love that we can never comprehend.

God of anticipation and all things new, as we rest in your unconditional love, help us to hold the hands of one another. Allow us to sit in anticipation together, so that we might help to comfort one another as we wait. With the coming of Christ, allow us to outstretch our hand towards your love as we outstretch our other one towards one another. Amen.

Written by Shelley Donaldson, Senior High Youth Coordinator

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

O Lord, how shall I meet you,
how welcome you aright?
Your people long to greet you,
my hope, my heart’s delight!
O kindle, Lord most holy,
a lamp within my breast,
to do in spirit lowly
all that may please you best.

Paul Gerhardt’s “O Lord, How Shall I Meet You”
(tune: Vallet Will Ich Dir Geben)
trans. Catherine Winkworth et. al.
from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal

When I was growing up, it was easy to define Advent as a time of preparation, a path leading to the birth of Jesus. We selected and wrapped gifts for family and friends. We rehearsed for the Advent pageant that we would perform at our church on Christmas Eve. We bought Advent calendars, opening one square each day to reveal a piece of religious-themed chocolate.

Of course, sometimes the anticipation became so great that it was tempting to live less in the present and skip ahead to the future, to Christmas itself. I would prowl around the basement, trying to detect gifts that my parents had not yet wrapped. An angel or a tiny shepherd would grow agitated and burst into tears during a long Advent pageant rehearsal. My sister (or me, I’m ashamed to say) would tear open an Advent calendar, all of the chocolates falling to the floor.

As an adult, I’m still tempted to rush Advent in favor of that day of warmth and celebration. But this hymn reminds us that in order to prepare for this day, for the arrival of this mighty God that comes to us in the form of a deceptively fragile child, we must “cultivate” the hope, the “lamp” within our hearts. Only then can we be fully ready for God’s Son.

Lord, help us to slow down and keep our lamps burning throughout Advent. Amen.

Written by Katie MacKendrick, Editorial Assistant

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Love caused your incarnation;
love brought you down to me;
your thirst for my salvation
procured my liberty.
O love beyond all telling,
that led you to embrace
in love, all loves excelling,
our lost and fallen race.

You come, O Lord, with gladness,
in mercy and goodwill,
to bring an end to sadness
and bid our fears be still.
In patient expectation
we live for that great day
when your renewed creation
your glory shall display.

Paul Gerhardt’s “O Lord, How Shall I Meet You”
(tune: Vallet Will Ich Dir Geben)
trans. Catherine Winkworth et. al.
from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal


How do you write a devotion about love? Our love for God. His love for us. It’s too big and universal. Too intimate and personal. Too much talked about and explained and illumined by far greater intellects than mine. Let’s take it down a notch—to our love for each other. How do I experience love in the people and the world around me? Maybe I can tackle that.

How do I feel about love? Awed. Awed by the expressions of love I’ve seen recently from new babies born and loved hard by their parents, awed by beautiful women cut down in the prime of life and loved hard by those left behind. Uplifted. Uplifted by the daily expressions of love in the halls and rooms and spaces of our Fourth Presbyterian Church campus as we welcome with respect and kindness our brothers and sisters from all walks of life and all nationalities and all families. Humbled. Humbled by the love my husband sends my way in occasional unexpected deliveries of flowers and the everyday “I love you” from across the sofa.

Can I translate these expressions and experiences of love into an understanding of God’s love? God loves us unconditionally, no matter what we do or what we bring to the party, in ways big and small. God loves us. And, because he loves us so well, how can we not love God?

Dear God, help me to see the love around me with new eyes and realize it all starts with you. Amen.

Written by Jean Marie Koon, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Today’s Reading | Luke 1:5–24

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. (NRSV)

It’s easy to sympathize with Zechariah in this story; after all, how many times are our prayers answered in the form of an angel giving us what we want! And yet, as with many other characters throughout the biblical story, Zechariah doesn’t believe the promises that he’s hearing. His vision in the temple and the seemingly impossible promise that Gabriel gives contain echoes of other biblical stories both before and after it: Abraham and Sarah, Hannah and Elkanah, and Mary and Joseph. Just like Abraham and Sarah, Zechariah is shocked that such a thing would occur in his life even though he, as a priest, has presumably heard stories like this countless times before.

In that respect, the improbable birth of John the Baptist is not merely an isolated incident; it’s a continuation of the covenant promises that God makes all the way back in Genesis. God will be with God’s people, making the impossible possible and surprising us all with a depth of grace we can barely comprehend.

Many of us have grown accustomed to the rhythm of this season, crazy as it is. There is predictability in the songs, shopping, parties, and décor. But in this Advent season, as we wait patiently for the Christ child, may each of us be open to surprise, wonder, and the unexpected. May we wait in hope for a moment, like Zechariah, that renders us speechless.

Surprise me in the midst of this Advent season, O God. May you give me a glimpse of your grace and love in these Advent days, and may your promises render me speechless. Amen.

Written by Matt Helms, Minister for Children and Families

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Friday, December 19, 2014

Today’s Reading | Luke 1:26–38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. (NRSV)

The angel’s message is unprecedented, life-altering, and seemingly far beyond anything Mary would have anticipated as a young girl of humble situation in her time. Poet Ann Weems captures the audacity of the annunciation in her poem “Mary, Nazareth Girl:”“What did you know of ethereal beings with messages from God? What did you know of men when you found yourself with child?

In a memorable Fourth Church sermon years ago, reference was made to a Fra Angelico fresco of  “a wonderfully mysterious moment when heaven and earth momentarily meet and God chooses an ordinary young girl to be the instrument of God’s mercy and love and grace.” In a moment of profound presence, Mary offers herself to God’s service without recompense or certainty.

I Googled Fra Angelico’s serenely beautiful depiction of the annunciation. I’ve viewed it repeatedly for years, enthralled by young Mary’s composure and deference. 

While it would be gratifying to have angels gently yet assuredly attend us in our Advent waiting, seldom are angels present quietly and obligingly. The question I contemplate is whether I could, despite all my doubts and the reactions of others, navigate fear and judgment to respond in the moment as faithfully as Mary. 
Could it be there are messages for us if we have the faith to listen? My prayer is inspired by a favorite contemporary Christmas song, “Breath of Heaven,” written from Mary’s perspective wherein she questions if she is worthy of being God’s choice.

Do you wonder as you watch my face,
If one wiser should have had my place,
But I offer all I am
For the mercy of your plan.
Help me be strong.
Help me be.
Help me.

Written by Laura Sterkel, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Today’s Reading | Luke 1:39–56

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
    for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
    for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
    he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy,
    according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home. (NRSV)

It is really a very ordinary scene as Mary walks into Elizabeth’s home. Each woman is pregnant, so it’s a joyful time of anticipation and hope for them; but just as Mary walks in, Elizabeth’s baby gives her a good kick in the stomach. Elizabeth even says the baby “leapt in her womb,” so it must have been some kick! But anyone who has been pregnant knows that babies do tend to move around a good deal and would probably say it does feel like babies even leap around inside there. What is unusual is Elizabeth’s reaction to this kick. She perceives it as a sign from God and is “filled with the Holy Spirit.”

God comes to each of us in very ordinary ways, giving us signs of God’s love and eagerness to dwell among us. We can find God in all people, any moment, and any situation if we only try. Like Elizabeth and Mary, we need to be open, receptive, and even eager to experience God in ordinary moments. Then we too can be “filled with the Holy Spirit.” And this openness to God can lead to many wonderful and unexpected blessings.

Mary’s response to Elizabeth is one of those blessings. Mary says some of the most beautiful words in scripture, words that countless composers have set to music, words that have nurtured generations. But they would never have been uttered without Elizabeth’s openness to God during a very ordinary event, one that happens every day.

How is God trying to get your attention? How is God kicking you in the stomach? What blessings might be possible if you can find God in something ordinary?

Lord, help me to be open to you, to find you in the everyday moments, to seek your face in every face. Help me be filled with your Holy Spirit so that my soul can magnify you. Amen.

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

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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Watchman, tell us of the night,
what its signs of promise are.
Traveler, what a wondrous sight:
see that glory-beaming star.
Watchman, does its beauteous ray
news of joy or hope foretell?
Traveler, yes; it brings the day,
promised day of Israel.

Watchman, tell us of the night;
higher yet that star ascends.
Traveler, blessedness and light,
peace and truth its course portends.
Watchman, will its beams alone
gild the spot that gave them birth?
Traveler, ages are its own;
see, it bursts o’er all the earth.

Watchman, tell us of the night,
for the morning seems to dawn.
Traveler, shadows take their flight;
doubt and terror are withdrawn.
Watchman, you may go your way;
hasten to your quiet home.
Traveler, we rejoice today,
for Emmanuel has come!

John Bowring’s “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night”
(tune: Aberystwyth)
from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal

Emmanuel has come! What a gift it would be to see signs and know that they foretell God’s arrival. As people of faith born after Christ’s birth, steeped in Mark’s story of wise men and a star, it does not seem difficult to grasp.

Imagine, however, that you’ve never heard about Jesus, let alone Mary, Joseph, or John the Baptist. You’re out in the darkness, scared. You and a stranger meet on your respective journeys. Instead of fearing one another, you both notice a beautiful light that removes the shadows over all the earth. You are not afraid; together you rejoice, because you are calm and confident—joy, peace, and truth are here.

Dear God, help me to recognize the light in the stranger as I travel on my journey. Help me to not fear the night, but to know that feelings of joy, peace, and truth mean that Emmanuel has come. The signs were always there. Amen.

Written by Maggie Lewis, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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Monday, December 22, 2014

Savior of the nations, come;
virgin’s son, make here your home.
Marvel now, O heaven and earth,
that the Lord chose such a birth.

From God’s heart the Savior speeds;
back to God his pathway leads;
out to vanquish death’s command,
back to reign at God’s right hand.

Ambrose of Milan’s “Savior of the Nations, Come”
(tune: Nun Komm, Der Heiden Heiland)
from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal

“When we speak of wisdom, we are speaking about Christ. When we speak about justice, we are speaking about Christ. When we speak about truth and life and redemption, we are speaking about Christ.” As Christian Americans throughout the United States ponder the tragic events of the past several weeks in Ferguson, Missouri; New York City; and Cleveland, Ohio, how relevant these words of St. Ambrose of Milan (c. 340–4 April 397), author of the Advent hymn “Savior of the Nations, Come” seem. One of the most illustrious fathers and doctors of the early Latin church, Ambrose is also credited with promoting the Antiphonal Chant, a method of chanting where one side of the choir alternately responds to the other. Indeed, we at Fourth Church were treated to this style of singing several months ago when the Morning and Chancel Choirs sang antiphonally from the North and South Balconies. Such was the influence of Ambrose on church music that he became known as “the father of church song,” and as his hymns spread throughout the West, they became known as “Ambrosian” hymns.

But it is the words of these hymns, as much as the music, that continue to inspire. The last two lines of the first stanza of “Savior of the Nations, Come” speak to the miracle of Christ’s birth, and the last two lines of the second stanza proclaim the triumph of Christ’s resurrection They also remind us of the words of the Apostles’ Creed: “He rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” For Ambrose, Christ was the be-all and end-all, the final vessel of wisdom, justice, truth, life, and redemption. If, in our quest for a response to the current crisis in race relations, we can keep these words foremost in our minds, then surely Christ will show us the way to lasting peace and unity.

Loving, merciful, all-knowing God, grant us the wisdom and the courage to seek truth and justice, peace and reconciliation, and thereby witness to the everlasting love of Jesus Christ, our Savior and our Lord. Amen.

Written by Claudia Boatright, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Now your manger, shining bright,
hallows night with newborn light.
Night cannot this light subdue;
let our faith shine ever new.

Praise we sing to Christ the Lord,
virgin’s son, incarnate Word!
To the holy Trinity
praise we sing eternally.

Ambrose of Milan’s “Savior of the Nations, Come”
(tune: Nun Komm, Der Heiden Heiland)
from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal

When our family gets together for a meal, there is usually a tentative moment when we want to say grace but everyone is a little uncertain about who should pray and how to start. So, fairly often, our six-year-old granddaughter, Emily, gets the call. A few weeks ago she started, “Now I lay me down to sleep,” but then went on to be thankful for the meal, and her family, even her little sister. Later that night she asked me to teach her another prayer. Wow—that is not what I usually hear from Emily. Normally Grandpa is busy going from task to task following her orders, so I went to work. I wrote what I considered a hard (adult) prayer and an easy (kids) version. We were all together again on the first night of Advent, and I went over the two versions and asked Emily if she wanted me to help her with one of them. She said, “No, let me do it.” In a few minutes, after thinking for a while, Emily gave thanks for the meal; gratitude for her family, friends, and school; asked for help for those who need it; and wished love for everyone.

God has confidence in us to see the salvation of the world in a small baby in a manager; to find the solution to discord in the world in an expectant season; and to listen, think, and act with God as we help God’s kingdom to come.

God, thank you for having confidence in me. Help me to deserve it! Amen.

Written by Gerry Bloomer, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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Wednesday, December 24, 2014
Christmas Eve

Away in a manger, no crib for his bed,
the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay,
the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing; the poor baby wakes,
but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.
I love thee, Lord Jesus; look down from the sky,
and stay by my side until morning is nigh.

Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask thee to stay
close by me forever and love me, I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.

“Away in a Manger” (tune: Cradle Song)
from Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families
and Gabriel’s Vineyard Songs
from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal

In his biblical scholarship, Raymond Brown makes a convincing case that the stories about Jesus’ birth in the New Testament are likely the last biblical stories about Jesus to have been written. It is likely, he argues, that only after Jesus had become renowned for his amazing deeds and teachings and for his death and resurrection that his followers began to wonder and imagine what his childhood and birth must have been like.

Every birth puts in stark relief the vulnerability of each new life. The story of Jesus’ birth, sung in this hymn, captures a life made even more vulnerable by its humble circumstances. In the humblest of shelters and without insulation from a world that could be, and eventually is, threatening to his life, Jesus is born.

Yet this song is not one of threat and danger. It is one of awe and wonder. Despite the fact that the hymnist knew how Jesus’ life on earth would end, he composed a hymn that conveys a sentiment arising out of trust rather than suspicion. The hymnist portrays the world into which Jesus was born as neither indifferent nor hostile, but as his father’s world, capable of beholding, nurturing, and sustaining the preciousness of life.

We are in awe, almighty God, of the preciousness of every new life. As we prepare for the coming of your Son, help us to make this world a safer, more secure, and loving place—a place where each new life can flourish. For the sake of the most vulnerable among us, we pray. Amen.

Written by Joyce Shin, Associate Pastor for Congregational Life

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Thursday, December 25, 2014
Christmas Day

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her king;
let every heart prepare him room,
and heaven and nature sing,
and heaven and nature sing,
and heaven, and heaven and nature sing.

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let all their songs employ,
while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
nor thorns infest the ground;
he comes to make his blessings flow
far as the curse is found,
far as the curse is found,
far as, far as the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
and makes the nations prove
the glories of his righteousness
and wonders of his love,
and wonders of his love,
and wonders, wonders of his love.

Isaac Watts’s “Joy to the World” (tune: Antioch)
from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal

This is one of my all-time favorite Christmas hymns. The tune is lively and vibrant and helps the words to dance. The music itself gives me “joy,” beginning with that first strong, crisp note. But even more than that, I am deeply moved by the words Isaac Watts composed. The imagery of all of creation repeating the sound of God’s joy evokes the imagery we find in the psalms. Fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains all join in on God’s music of redemption and salvation.

And when I sing “heaven and nature sing,” I immediately reflect on the prayer we all pray each Sunday with the Lord’s Prayer. Each Sunday, we pray for God’s kingdom, God’s reign, to be all-in-all and for God’s will to be done in both heaven and on earth. That kind of all-encompassing embrace of God looks like heaven and nature singing.

And what a gift it is to notice that God’s salvation, God’s redemption of all creation, is known by song. Have you ever stopped to think about that? This hymn proclaims that one way we see and hear the promise that God reigns is through the music of creation. We have a God who makes God’s presence known through song. Joy to the world, indeed!

But the stanza that humbles me is the final one. As we think of rulers or those in power in our world, we often see a power that is used as “power over.” It is a power that controls or dominates. Yet, this stanza reveals for us a Savior who rules with both truth and grace. It is a Savior who, to paraphrase the words of theologian Bill Placher, became weak in power in order to show us the strength of God’s love. We worship a God who chose vulnerability as a primary means to make God’s self known to us. We worship a God who was born into this world as a helpless, small, Jewish baby boy who, like all of us, depended on the love and care of his parents in order to survive. A God who emptied God’s self of all “power over” in order to show us the wonders of God’s love and how we can reflect that love back. It is amazing. It is Christmas. Joy to the world, indeed.

Gracious God, we sit in awe of the way you have chosen to be known by us. Your light has come into this world, and the shadows of darkness shall not, cannot, overcome it. So may your story of vulnerably powerful love help us to see your Light shining brightly on this day. Bathe us in it and transform us by it. We pray by the power of your Spirit. Amen.

Written by Shannon J. Kershner, Pastor

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Friday, December 26, 2014

O come, all ye faithful,
joyful and triumphant;
O come ye; O come ye to Bethlehem!
Come, and behold him,
born the King of angels!
O come, let us adore him;
O come, let us adore him;
O come, let us adore him,
Christ, the Lord!

True God from true God,
Light from light eternal,
born of a virgin, a mortal he comes;
very God, begotten, not created!
O come, let us adore him;
O come, let us adore him;
O come, let us adore him,
Christ, the Lord!

Sing, choirs of angels;
sing in exultation;
sing, all ye citizens of heaven above!
Glory to God, all
glory in the highest!
O come, let us adore him;
O come, let us adore him;
O come, let us adore him,
Christ, the Lord!

Yea, Lord, we greet thee,
born this happy morning;
Jesus, to thee be all glory given;
Word of the Father,
now in flesh appearing!
O come, let us adore him;
O come, let us adore him;
O come, let us adore him,
Christ, the Lord!

John Francis Wade’s “O Come, All Ye Faithful”
(tune: Adeste Fideles)
trans. Frederick Oakeley
from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal

This is truly one of my favorite hymns. The hymn tune is powerful and well constructed. The verses are bold statements of faith while the refrain balances with a softer call to approach in adoration. I particularly like a John Rutter arrangement of this carol. As the congregation sings of “choirs of angels,” the soprano has a soaring descant (“Noel! Sing, O sing in exultation!”) over the verse. I always enjoy teaching it and listening to it.

Still, during these times of tribulation, what word is here for us? As a reformed and reforming people, our leaders—men and women of all races—have looked to this very Christ as a model for their lives. In this season of Advent, it seems particularly important to take stock of how Christ lived and what Christ did with his time as mortal flesh. What did he give up? What have we gained? How are we as a people to live into God’s plan for our life through the example of the Christ we announce in this hymn?

This time of year can be hectic. Musicians get to see the best and the worst that the season has to offer. I remember becoming quite jaded about it when I was younger. There are still days when cynicism can get the upper hand. Yet when I look at this text and sing this hymn, I am overwhelmed by the vastness of God’s plan and my wee role in it. As one of the faithful, it is time to go to Bethlehem and to witness anew the birth of the only begotten, to sing with choirs of angels, and to greet the Word become flesh. Come. Let us adore him.

God of wonder: Help me see you in the faces of those around me this season. As I celebrate Christ’s birth, let me see the areas of my life where I fall short of your plan for my life. With Christ as my example, help me learn to live more fully and more completely. In the name of the one we come to adore. Amen.

Written by Rob Sinclair, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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Saturday, December 27, 2014

In the bleak midwinter,
frosty wind made moan;
earth stood hard as iron,
water like a stone;
snow had fallen, snow on snow,
snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold him,
nor earth sustain;
heaven and earth shall flee away
when he comes to reign:
in the bleak midwinter
a stable place sufficed
the Lord God incarnate, Jesus Christ.

Angels and archangels
may have gathered there;
cherubim and seraphim
thronged the air;
but his mother only,
in her maiden bliss,
worshiped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give him,
poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd,
I would bring a lamb;
if I were a wise man,
I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him: give my heart.

Christina Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter”
(tune: Cranham)
from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal

What can I give him? 

This hymn transports me. Christina Rossetti gave us a personal, tender poem pouring out her love for the transcendent God, and later, in a rush, Gustav Holst vocalized her words with a snowy melody that perfectly acquaints us with her quiet passion. What gifts! How pleased God must be with the work of these two artists whose nineteenth-century lives were marked by illness, financial despair, loneliness, and depression. 

Their living legacy of words and notes are sprinkled delicately on the page, waiting for me to sing them out from some curious reflexive viscera. As the organ introduces the tune, I nervously set my heart to sing with an air of “Me too! Me! Me! I want to give, too.” But what can I give? I have a terrible voice. Off-key. Tone-deaf. Dissonant. Breathless. Creaking. Croaking. Grating. I will make a mess of this magnificent carol. People will judge me; give me dirty looks; wish for me to shut it; hope I choke; hate me!

He calls me to stillness. I respond in silence. I close my eyes and imagine letting his peace rule my heart. In a second my transformed heart awakens and shakes off the grumbling in my mind. And so I sing as loud as I can with my whole peaceful core. I give God my imperfect singing of this perfect song. I set my voice on an imaginary course of graceful, harmonious, angelic melody. This, I believe, is what he hears.

My God, I love that my discordant heart can be stilled by your peace. I love that a perfect gift for you is my imperfect song. Amen.

Written by Regan Burke, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Gentle Mary laid her child
lowly in a manger;
there he lay, the undefiled,
to the world a stranger.
Such a babe in such a place,
can he be the Savior?
Ask the saved of all the race
who have found his favor.

Angels sang about his birth;
wise men sought and found him;
heaven’s star shone brightly forth,
glory all around him.
Shepherds saw the wondrous sight,
heard the angels singing;
all the plains were lit that night;
all the hills were ringing.

Gentle Mary laid her child
lowly in a manger;
he is still the undefiled,
but no more a stranger.
Son of God, of humble birth,
beautiful the story;
praise his name in all the earth;
hail the King of glory!

Joseph Simpson Cook’s “Gentle Mary Laid Her Child”
(tune: Tempus Adest Floridum)
from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal

The Christmas season has always been a time for family in my house. My siblings and I are spread out in age, so we were rarely involved in similar activities. But Christmas brings out the child in us all, and we will bake cookies, decorate gingerbread houses, and judge Christmas lights. Christmas Eve, after the Christmas Eve service, our entire family piled into the car and would drive the long way home and look at the Christmas lights. We all became amateur judges, rating decorations and calling houses that chose not to participate “scrooges.” I remember the first house I ever saw that had Christmas lights set to music. I was at the age that musical lights were the coolest thing ever. But my older siblings never gave these houses high scores, preferring the simple, tasteful, subtle Christmas decorations.

So too was Jesus’ entrance into our world: simple, subtle, humble beginnings, lying in a manger. People would have expected trumpets, palaces, and paparazzi similar to those at the birth of Prince George in England. Jesus came as a man of the people, not bothering with fitting the expectations of the world: a preview of what was to come, a ministry that would defy expectations and rewrite our relationship to God.

Lord, I pray for the appreciation of simplicity of life. May I remember to question expectations and live a life with perspective, knowing that great things can come from the most unexpected places, just as Jesus was found in a manger. Amen.

Written by Katie Patterson, Junior High Youth and Mission Coordinator

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Monday, December 29, 2014

Of the Father’s love begotten,
ere the worlds began to be,
he is Alpha and Omega;
he the source, the ending he,
of the things that are, that have been,
and that future years shall see,
evermore and evermore!

By his Word was all created;
he commanded; it was done:
heaven and earth and depths of ocean,
universe of three in one,
all that sees the moon’s soft shining,
all that breathes beneath the sun,
evermore and evermore!

O, that birth forever blessed
when the Virgin, full of grace,
by the Holy Ghost conceiving,
bore the Savior of our race,
and the babe, the world’s Redeemer,
first revealed his sacred face,
evermore and evermore!

Aurelius Clemens Prudentius’s “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” (tune: Divinum Mysterium)
trans. John Mason Neale and Henry Williams Baker
from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal

Sometimes I wonder if I should be writing these things. I read this hymn, written by a fourth-century Roman poet from Spain, and the repeated refrain of “evermore” makes my mind leap, not to the glories of creation and contemplation of the eternal, but to an American poet, Edgar Allan Poe, and his large black bird and the word, “Nevermore.”

"The Raven" is a poem of deep grief and mourning, not one that anyone would normally pull out and read during Advent. It's a pain-wracked piece, where the author pleads "On this home by Horror haunted-tell me truly, I implore:

Is there--is there balm in Gilead?--tell me--tell me, I implore!" And quoth the Raven . . . well, you know.

The enforced merriment of the holiday season can often push someone in the opposite direction. Sometimes we're not happy. Sometimes we are brutally sad, and instead of the wings of angels, we see big black birds. We are incessantly told that this is a season of fullness, and still we can feel emptiness. We can see that this world, our home, is still "by Horror haunted," and we beg for just a little relief.

Which, of course, is what Christmas is all about--hope brought by the birth of a child, the hope of relief, the hope, the ". . . . thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all." And with Emily Dickinson, we can remember that it's not that we are merry, it's that we are hopeful, and our prayer is that this tune would never stop at all, but last evermore and evermore.

Lord, in this joyous time we pray for those who mourn, that they may be comforted. The world is as broken as it ever was. Please give us hope, that we might work to heal it. Amen.

Written by Rob Koon, Coordinator of Fine Arts

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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

This is he whom seers in old time
chanted of with one accord,
whom the voices of the prophets
promised in their faithful word.
Now he shines, the long-expected.
Let creation praise its Lord,
evermore and evermore!

O ye heights of heaven, adore him.
Angel hosts, his praises sing.
Powers, dominions, bow before him,
and extol our God and King.
Let no tongue on earth be silent;
every voice in concert ring,
evermore and evermore!

Christ, to thee with God the Father,
and, O Holy Ghost, to thee,
hymn and chant and high thanksgiving
and unwearied praises be.
Honor, glory, and dominion,
and eternal victory,
evermore and evermore! Amen.

Aurelius Clemens Prudentius’s “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”
(tune: Divinum Mysterium)
trans. John Mason Neale and Henry Williams Baker
from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal

“They’re here!” My mom called out, her voice echoing through the house. It was a familiar sound, one that took me back to childhood holidays when our house would fill up with grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, extra pets, and good food. These days, my parents are the grandparents, and this call from my mom indicated the arrival of my two stepsisters and baby niece for our family Thanksgiving. My brother, sister-in-law, nephew, and another baby niece would arrive shortly after. My family spends most of our time spread out across the country, loving each other from afar while we live our own busy lives. This year, our holiday time together was just a brief twenty-four hours, but it was a day brimming over with the kind of joy that only a sense of homecoming can bring.

In this season, when we celebrate the coming of Christ, we reflect on the promise of a better world that he brings. We have filled ourselves with hope and expectation and the possibility of justice and true peace. But the coming of Christ also carries with it that deep and particular joy that only a homecoming can bring. With the coming of Jesus, we are invited into family, invited to come home to an endless dance of relationship with God, Christ, Holy Spirit, and one another. Jesus bears with him the promise of home for all people, of being claimed and known and loved. It is a joyful promise indeed.

Loving God, we give thanks for your Son and for the invitation into family, love, and home that he brings. Help us to extend that same joyful love to one another this season. Amen.

Written by Layton Williams, Pastoral Resident

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Wednesday, December 31, 2014
New Year's Eve

All hail to God’s anointed,
great David’s greater Son!
All hail, in time appointed,
your reign on earth begun!
You come to break oppression,
to set the captive free,
to take away transgression
and rule in equity.

You come with rescue speedy
to those who suffer wrong,
to help the poor and needy
and bid the weak be strong;
to give them songs for sighing,
their darkness turn to light,
whose souls, condemned and dying,
are precious in your sight.

James Montgomery’s “All Hail to God’s Anointed”
(tune: Rockport)
from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal

Having graduated from the University of Michigan, all I can think of when I read the beginning of these hymn lyrics is the beginning of another song: “Hail to the Victors Valiant.” I can’t count the number of times I’ve sung this fight song, showing full allegiance to my alma mater and its teams.

This hymn is a fight song of sorts, meant to draw us again into full allegiance to God’s anointed, great David’s greater Son. The original reference is to Solomon from Psalm 72, but I have no doubt that James Montgomery was looking at this psalm through a Christian lens, recalling the family of David and citing Jesus as that greater son. All hail to God’s anointed. All hail to the one whose reign on earth has begun. Hail! Hail!

In all honesty, when I first read the words to this particular hymn, I wasn’t moved. Maybe the accompanying music would have helped, but nevertheless, my first thought was, “Yes, but . . .” Yes, but what about those who suffer wrong and see no signs of God’s presence? Yes, but what about those people who are poor and in need, whom I see every day on the streets of Chicago? Sometimes, many times, I don’t see God coming with speedy rescue. Instead, it seems to me that God moves with glacial speed.

But that’s why I’m helped by thinking of this hymn as a university fight song. My team might get blocked and have trouble making it across the goal line. Various coaches might be fired. Sometimes the recruits don’t perform. There are bad calls. Practice doesn’t go well. Despite some losses or bad seasons, I keep cheering and hoping. And every time I hear the beginning of “Hail to the Victors Valiant,” I get goose bumps. The same and more should be true when I sing this hymn.

Dear God, refuel me with an allegiance that comes from hope and passion. Help me to sing loudly my own song of allegiance to you, despite any discouragement. Hail, God’s anointed. Hail Victor Valiant. Hail. Amen.

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

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