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July 1–2 | July 3–9 | July 10–16
July 17–23 | July 24–31

 

Friday, July 1, 2016

Today’s Reading | Psalm 42

Reflection

There have been times in my journey of faith when it seemed as though God was everywhere! Right in my face. If I had a dream during the night, it was as though God was talking directly to me in that dream. When I heard a song, there was always something of God smack dab in the middle of the lyrics. An interaction, a visit from someone I barely knew, a synchronicity of some sort—flares of the divine were going off all around me. For the most part, even when it was scary, it was wonderful.

But there have been those dry times. Those are the times when I could have been the psalmist writing, “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.”

I have found myself of late wondering about the course of my spirituality. Why are the flares of the divine fewer and farther between? Am I doing something wrong? Am I not spending enough time in prayer, in scripture, in quiet? Or is the fact that my spirituality has changed simply a normal part of the journey of faith? I suspect it is, but I still long for the flares of the divine to go off as frequently as they once did. The psalmist must have longed for this, too, but is reminded to remember those times when God seemed so close: “These things I remember, as I pour out my soul, how I went with the throng and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving.” That’s what I must do in those longing times—remember when the flares of the divine were going off so regularly and trust that it will happen again.

Prayer

God of every minute of my life, help me to hope in you, to trust that I will praise you again, and to remember that you have been my help and my God. Amen.

Written by Judith L. Watt, Associate Pastor

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Saturday, July 2, 2016

Today’s Reading | Matthew 16:13–20

Reflection

What is God?

That is a paraphrase of the question Jesus asked his disciples, but it is at the core of his question “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The question started an animated debate with the disciples, as it would even today, but it was only Peter who said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” In that acknowledgement, that moment, Peter’s life was transformed as Jesus said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Peter’s to-do list suddenly became much larger! The moment Peter recognized Jesus as Lord, he had a calling, a mission, to serve God and all people.

The question “What is God?” is an important one to wrestle with, but what really matters is accepting and receiving God into your life. When God is in your heart, mind, and soul, each of us can be transformed as Peter was. To know God is to be in service to God and to others, all of whom are created in the image of God. Service to God and all of God’s children leads to a never-ending cycle of revelation about God. Seeking God each day leads to an ever-opening awareness of who God is. It is all a never-ending circle of revelation, but it begins with a question and a simple answer for each person. The transformation begins the moment we accept God but is complete only at the end of this life when we become one with God in unending light and love.

Prayer

God, help me to seek you and in that seeking be transformed. Help to me know you and in that knowing be changed. Help me to love you and in that love never leave you. Amen.

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

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Sunday, July 3, 2016

Today’s Reading | Matthew 16:24–26

Reflection

The message from these passages in Matthew is also repeated in context in Luke and Mark. As I read the scripture again, it made sense why Jesus needed to repeat this message over and over again. We humans are a hardheaded lot at times.

So, what is the message in this scripture? We are all called by Jesus to abandon ourselves in service to him. It is his cross that marks the true disciple. Jesus teaches us that our hope is not in our material possessions and the things of this world but in eternal life with him. We need to be mindful of whom we serve. That service, or discipleship, means we serve all God’s people in this world and care for its resources. Life on this earth as faithful Christians is not always easy. One thing goes wrong in our lives and we begin to be doubtful. Is God abandoning me? However, as  Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated in his book The Cost of Discipleship, “He leads the way, keep close to him.”

God allows us to make our own decisions. He allows us to learn from the decisions we make—both right and wrong. But the right decision is not about material things; it is about the wonderful calling and opportunity he has given to us. Every day I pray I can better yield myself to God so he can work in me. I am a bit of a control freak, you see. But under the mighty hand of God in faith, I can allow God to work in me. His work is always wonderful and good. Once we yield, we can set our mind to overcome any diversity in our life and live the way God wants us to live, in obedience to God and discipleship to others.

What are you still trying to control?

Prayer

Dear Lord and heavenly Father, I am a work in progress. Please help me to need control less and to submit myself to you so I can truly be your disciple and serve you in this world. Amen.

Written by Lola Coke, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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Monday, July 4, 2016

Today’s Reading | Romans 3:21–31  

Reflection

For a lot of my life, I have avoided doing things unless I knew I could succeed. I have gone to great lengths to avoid situations where I felt like I might really mess things up. Only recently have I begun to challenge that tendency, and I have discovered a whole new kind of freedom.

Have you ever really messed things up? Have you ever done that while trying desperately hard to get everything right? I have. I am a perfectionist by nature, and I’ve never handled the possibility of failure very well. I have a tendency to measure my value by what I can accomplish and how well I can accomplish it. But because I’m human, this strategy for measuring worth destines me for disappointment. Of course I will fail sometimes. Of course I will not be perfect. That is true for us all.

The good news of our faith is that Jesus does not measure our value by our own perfection. Jesus has faith in us and loves us as we are. What saves us is his perfect love for us, rather than anything we might achieve, whether through good works or success in life. I find this truth incredibly liberating. It doesn’t mean that we don’t strive to be good in our lives, but our efforts toward goodness are responses rather than requirements. Our faith in Christ and his love for us compels us toward goodness, however we might falter in the process. I believe this understanding—an acknowledgement of our own inability to be perfect—actually enables us to be better. So let us go out into this world as the beautifully beloved and flawed human beings that we are and seek to do whatever good we can in grateful response to the grace we have been given.

Prayer

Loving God, we thank you for giving us life and loving us even in our imperfections. We thank you for claiming us as we are. Help us to have faith in your love and to live as reflections of your grace. Amen.

Written by Layton Williams, Pastoral Resident

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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Today’s Reading | Romans 5:1–11         

Reflection

Justification is not a word we spend much time with in our twenty-first-century life, and yet it is central to the theological point that Paul is making in this passage from Romans and was the center of one of the main theological debates during the Reformation. In non-theological terms, justification is something that defends a particular action, whether that be a fact, reason, or explanation. For Protestants, justification was and is a way of explaining how an inherently sinful people could nonetheless be freed from the guilt of their sins: through faith in Christ (and not works, Luther shouts!), we are forgiven completely according to God’s grace.

While we have come to accept this as a standard aspect of our theology and don’t spend much time thinking about it, it’s worth dwelling for a second on what a powerfully radical view this is. God’s grace has primacy over anything we might do; we are forgiven even in instances in which we are undeserving, and truthfully, all of us are on some level undeserving. This grace transcends our understanding of fairness and justice, sometimes in thorny and even troubling ways, and it demands that we live our lives in a similar fashion.

We may not spend much time thinking about justification, but it encapsulates so much about how we as a church understand God to be: sovereign, gracious, merciful, and loving. Forgiven by God, even when we are undeserving, may we too strive to live lives that emulate that same grace and love.

Prayer

Holy God, help me to live a life that honors your grace, mercy, and care—forgiving others because you first forgave me and loving others because that is who you are: love. Amen.

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

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Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Today’s Reading | Romans 6:1–11

Reflection

Before these verses, Paul spent a great deal of time writing about sin and grace. The free gift of God’s grace, Paul argued, is stronger than any bondage to sin. But then it is as if Paul sensed a possible reaction from the church people and tried to put to rest any notion that God’s enormous grace was “cheap” and did not ask anything from us in response.

He pounded the pulpit with his words: “Look—in your baptism you renounced the jurisdiction and rule of sin over your life. You died to that. The tomb of your baptism became the womb of your new life. You have been reborn into the reign and rule of grace, freedom, and salvation. Live like it.” We need not fear death, for in our baptism we have already died.

John Westerhoff once wrote about a baptism he witnessed in a Latin American church. After recalling God’s gracious acts, the congregation started singing a funeral hymn. A solemn procession moved down the center aisle as the father carried a child’s coffin and the mother carried a bucket of water. The priest carried their sleeping infant. When they reached the front, the father placed the coffin on the altar, the mother poured the water in the coffin, and the priest covered the wakening baby’s skin with embalming oil. Then the priest slowly lowered the infant into the coffin, immersing the child’s head in the water. He exclaimed, “I kill you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” “Amen!” everyone shouted. Quickly lifting the child into the air, the priest declared, “And I resurrect you that you might love and serve the Lord.” And the congregation immediately broke into a joyous Easter hymn (quoted by William Fogleman, “Romans 6:3–14,” Interpretation, 1993). Quite a baptism, don’t you think? May it be so for you and for me.

Prayer

Life-giving God, I thank you for destroying anything that would try to keep me from knowing your love and claim on my life. May I live this day trusting in your Easter power and in your promise that I am a new creation. Amen.

Written by Shannon J. Kershner, Pastor

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Thursday, July 7, 2016

Today’s Reading | Psalm 46           

Reflection

Those who know me will confirm that I’m not good at being still. I spend most of my yoga classes trying to get rid of the swarm of thoughts that fill my mind. When I’m on vacation, I would rather explore a new city than lie on a beach. I am happiest when I’m completing tasks and crossing items off of my to-do lists.

Similarly, when I’m faced with an issue that needs to be resolved, my immediate impulse is to make a plan and take action. But there are many situations over which I have no control. While objectively these events are not world-ending, they prompt me to turn inward, to place the burden of uncertainty on myself. How can I be still when I have to figure things out?

The audience of Psalm 46, when faced with crises that are indeed catastrophic, are encouraged to “not fear” and put their trust in God. A God who can take even the most horrible, earth-shattering wars and natural disasters and “cease” them with only an utterance. “Be still, and know that I am God!”

Let us remember that our burdens are not ours alone.

Prayer

God, remind me to breathe and to have faith in you, especially when I encounter problems that are beyond my control. Help me to remember that you are all-powerful and capable of transforming even the most severe devastation into hope and life. Amen.

Written by Katie MacKendrick, Editorial Assistant

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Friday, July 8, 2016

Today’s Reading | Matthew 18:1–5

Reflection

Like the disciples, we are all-too-often concerned about who has status and power and how to get it. Furthermore, when I think about who I consider “great,” or who I want to become, I confess I don’t exactly envision a toddler covered in spaghetti. Jesus’ answer turns the question upside down—it’s almost comical.

So what does it mean to “become humble” like a child?

Jesus never gets very specific, which means there are many possible answers (one of the things I love about this passage), but what is clear is that the challenge to become humble like children requires a change of both perspective and status. Not just how the world sees us, but how we see the world.

Ten months ago my wife and I welcomed our son, Callum, into the world. He has changed the way we see everything. It is infectious to watch him when he is curious about something. I love watching him learn how to use his body, discover his voice, and interact with everyone and everything around him—the world is full of wonder, and his focus is outward, away from himself. I know children aren’t always pure, selfless creatures, but for us right now, Cal is a daily reminder of the innate humility in children, and it sheds a much-needed light on my own stubborn self-importance.

This is why children and youth are so important, whether we realize it or not. In times of darkness—as we become jaded grown-ups, numb to the world—we need them to remind us that innocence and joy and trust still remain. We need that balance. We need them as much as they need us.

Prayer

Thank you, God, for reminding us that our idea of greatness is not what it seems. Thank you for children and the opportunity we have to rediscover life through them. Amen.

Written by Jeremy Pfaff, Editorial Assistant

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Saturday, July 9, 2016

Today’s Reading | Matthew 18:10–20

Reflection

Jesus knows he is speaking to people who live by agriculture. So why does he keep using examples of people doing it so badly? Seed sowers not paying attention to where they are sowing seeds, and shepherds leaving ninety-nine percent of their flock on the mountains to go look for one stupid lost sheep . . . these are things that don’t happen. Leave ninety-nine sheep on the mountain to go look for one and you may well come back to forty-nine sheep, due to thieves, predators, or general sheep-like stupidity. You lost one. It happens. Save the rest—they are your family’s lifeline.

Agriculture is an area in which stewardship is readily apparent, where waste has immediate and profound consequences. And Jesus’ audience knew it. So what is the point Jesus is trying to make?

He’s talking about children, and the regard and care we have for them. In contrast to, say, sheep, we don’t treat children as a commodity. Children are special. We sacrifice for them. We sacrifice ourselves. We’ll do anything to find a lost child. There is an unspoken question in Jesus’ example: I know you’d abandon one sheep, but how about a child? How about an adult?

Irony is a powerful way to make a point.

This passage is about reconciliation. The ugly truth is we write people off all the time. Our lives are full of people we’ve cut loose, where we’ve cut our losses and gone our way and left them to their own devices. You can see these people on the street every day, the ones who have been cut loose. And Jesus tells us that we are treating them like animals, like a commodity that is not worth the effort of keeping and finding.

Christ challenges us to see differently, not to look at people like they are things to be exploited, but to humbly realize that they are not lower than we are but the same. And when we realize this, perhaps we have found a key to the kingdom.

Prayer

Dear Lord, as we move through our day remind us that we are called to bring people up, to bring them together, to be reconciled to one another in humility and the knowledge that we are all the same in your eyes. Amen.

Written by Rob Koon, Coordinator of Fine Arts

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Sunday, July 10, 2016

Today’s Reading | Matthew 18:21–35

Reflection

Radical obedience. Radical grace.

You know how the voice of an influential teacher stays in your head for a long time, maybe forever?

When I read passages like this from the Gospel of Matthew (though the first two verses here are also in Luke, the parable is only found in Matthew), I hear the voice of Richard Dillon, under whom I was privileged to study in graduate school. From him I learned that the Jesus presented to us in this text is more forthright and demanding than warm and fuzzy. The author of this Gospel puts some pretty provocative and shocking words into Jesus’ mouth to get us to sit up and pay attention. (“Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” ring any bells?) What Matthew’s Jesus asks of us is hard—impossible even—but there are no excuses for not trying, because help is available to us. Radical obedience. Radical grace.

This parable is a wonderful example of that mantra. Forgive my messy, broken, sinful sisters and brothers over and over again, so many times that I should just give up counting? Yes, because that’s how many times God, and each of the people of God in my life, have to forgive messy, broken, sinful me. Do I like thinking of God as a king who punishes servants by turning them over to torturers? Of course not, but the gravity of that image does remind me that discipleship is serious business and that I am accountable for what I do.

Radical obedience. Radical grace.

Prayer

Jesus, through whom I have access to radical grace and unreasonable love and foolish forgiveness, help me to imitate your radical obedience. I will never be perfect, but with your help I can be so much better than I am today. Thank you. (And thank you, too, for excellent teachers.) Amen.

Written by Susan Quaintance, Program Coordinator,
Center for Life and Learning


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Monday, July 11, 2016

Today’s Reading | Matthew 19:13–22

Reflection

I’ve often read the story of the rich man as an example of how much we have to give up in order to follow Christ. Today though, I see that he wasn’t asked to give up everything, not at first. He was told to follow the commandments, and not even all of them. But that wasn’t good enough for him. He wanted more. He wanted to be perfect, to achieve the highest prize as he envisioned it. Was this about God, or was his desire more worldly? Whatever his motive, in the end he could not follow through.

It’s not even about money—that just happened to be what this young man loved. He is being asked to follow the first part of Jesus’ grand commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.” This man happened to have placed his possessions before God, but what might our little gods be?

In the end, though, that’s still not what we’re being asked for. If we wish to enter into life, we’re asked to keep the commandments. That’s all. That’s hard enough. Living as a disciple of Christ is both harder and simpler than we make it out to be. Harder, in that it’s all-encompassing, involving all aspects of our lives, no matter how minute. And simpler, in that it doesn’t have to be about some idea we have of perfection. It can be as simple as asking, “Is what I do from love?” And then being as honest as we can about what that love is for.

Prayer

Gracious and loving God, may we become like children, simple in our needs, trusting in you to fulfill them, and willingly giving all that we can back to you. Amen.

Written by Anne Ellis, Program Manager for Congregational Life

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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Today’s Reading | Matthew 20:1–16

Reflection

Think of a time when you gave your greatest effort to a team project. Some team members probably put in more time or work than others; feelings of competition or resentment may have arisen.

Today’s scripture triggers some of those frustrating emotions. The laborers who arrived early received their pay for a full day’s effort, but those who arrived at the last hour received an equal amount for much less effort. At first thought, this seems unfair and unreasonable to the laborers who gave several more hours of their time and energy.

The story becomes a bit more complex when the laborer asks why the latecomers were idle all day. They respond, “Because no one hired us.”

Who are these laborers hired in the eleventh hour? In scripture, these individuals would probably be undesired workers—perhaps elderly, having a physical disability, or even ostracized by certain communities due to their heritage.

However, the laborer employs and rewards these individuals for the work they were able to contribute, regardless of the limited time spent in the vineyard. They not only answered the call for service, and knew they had worth to contribute, but the laborer validated their worth justly and generously.

Similarly God welcomes everyone into the “vineyard” if they are willing to answer that invitation and give whatever energy (faith) they have. God’s generosity is boundless, and God does not judge when we answer that invitation, but is thrilled to have us respond “yes.” In the same way, we must remember our brothers and sisters are welcome to that invitation, and our own patience and generosity with their efforts must be abundant in grace.

Prayer

Generous God, thank you for welcoming me when I’m eagerly ready and welcoming me when I have resisted your loving invitations. Let me follow in your grace and share an open heart with my sisters and brothers in Christ. Amen.

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

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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Today’s Reading | Matthew 20:29–34  

Reflection

Two things stand out to me in this episode from Matthew’s Gospel. “What do you want me to do for you?” is one. “Moved with compassion” is the other.

The dignity we grant people when we inquire about their needs and desires is powerful indeed. So often I assume I know what people need and what people want, especially when I encounter people who, like the two men in this story, are broadcasting a need for help: the jingling cup, the awkward pause, tears.

But before we swing into action to provide what we think people need, we can follow Jesus’ example and take the small but significant step of asking people what they want. The risk there is that we might not have the means to provide it or we may find a scruple with it. But if we actually ask out of a sincere interest, we’ll start from a much better place than if we act first without asking.

Jesus’ inquiry opens the door for his compassion, which opens the door for his healing action. When we act to help but lack compassion, our help can imprison those we’re trying to help. But if we allow compassion to guide us—and this is vulnerable, painful stuff—then we may find we’re sharing in a mutual gift instead of merely giving away aid.

Prayer

Lord God, Jesus cares enough to ask. Move us to care with his care, to undergo his compassion, and to touch with his touch, so that healing may abound. Amen.

Written by Rocky Supinger, Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry

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Thursday, July 14, 2016

Today’s Reading | Psalm 47

Reflection

Shout! Cry out! Clap your hands, and sing, sing, sing, SING! The command to sing praises is given four times in Psalm 47, so when I read this psalm I feel joy and can imagine myself clapping, shouting, and singing. I feel the rush of exuberance and a release of satisfaction. But do I ever actually open my mouth or put my hands together?

Why would the psalmist be so specific? Why am I so inhibited? If you have ever raised teenagers, you might have some idea. You might know the look of pain they give you if you clap your hands to a song or move to a beat. And just forget singing to the radio. “Mom . . . please stop. No . . . I’m serious.” Thus ends the exuberance. I think that the ability to let myself go, to whoop, holler, clap my hands, and praise the Lord has been ‘ “cultured”‘ out of me over the years.

Back to my question: Why would the psalmist be so specific? Why would the scriptures tell us time and time again to raise our hands and voices when praising God? I believe that it is for our benefit. Perhaps it is the same with prayer—or any communication with God.

Recently I was at a funeral where the first hour was filled with painful eulogies and open expressions of raw grief. But then things changed. These Christians commenced to do some serious praising of God. I saw hands raised, heads thrown back, mouths opened wide. People were spinning and singing and swaying and smiling. To me it was a miracle. To them? Just church.

Prayer

Dear God, thank you for the instruction, the demonstration, and the affirmation that you really do want us to praise you. Loudly. Amen.

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

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Friday, July 15, 2016

Today’s Reading | Matthew 25:1–13

Reflection

“Keep awake.” When reading this passage, “Keep awake” is what I keep coming back to. In Jesus’ parable, bridesmaids prepared by bringing adequate amounts of oil. While that helps drive home the point of the story, I don’t think that keeping awake is as simple as making sure we have adequate lighting.

This passage calls us to be prepared for Christ’s return. While this is often read as a call to make sure you are “right with God,” I see it as so much more than that. Preparation isn’t simply about waiting. It’s a constant process of being awake in our world, bringing the light of Christ’s grace and peace to all we meet, in all circumstances.

This is not an easy command to follow. There’s no way that any of us as humans can be truly prepared for Christ’s return. And the words to the foolish bridesmaids—“I do not know you”—are heartbreaking. But while I will always be ill-prepared, I have faith in the promises of Baptism—that we are sealed with Christ—and that promise spurs me to do my best to keep awake in this world.

Prayer

Lord, give me the inspiration to be awake in the world, taking hold of the many opportunities you give me to prepare this world for your return. Amen.

Written by Jared Light, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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Saturday, July 16, 2016

Today’s Reading | Matthew 25:14–27

Reflection

In life we are told so many conflicting stories, given so many interpretations of what happened and why. The same is true of the biblical stories. How do we sort through them all and strengthen our own sense of morality and justice, even as we maintain our humility, knowing we can misjudge things at every turn?

This story in Matthew’s Gospel tells us that three servants are given an amount of money according to their “ability.” The one with the least ability is given the least amount of money and acts to protect it rather than risk losing it altogether. Then this slave is punished for their lack of ability and for failure to make a profit for the “harsh master.”

This sounds like what we would expect from a harsh master. But it’s not what I expect from Jesus, and it’s not what I expect from God. I don’t think the harsh master is supposed to be a metaphor for God in this story. If harsh consequences happen as a result of this story, I think they come in the next section of Matthew’s Gospel.

There Jesus describes the Son of Man, the king, (himself) separating the sheep from the goats based on their kindness and generosity. “I assure you,” the king will say, “that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.” How would the harsh master be judged on these terms?

As a spiritual practice, we can ask ourselves how and when do we act like the harsh master, judging people based on their levels and kinds of abilities, rather than treating them with kindness and generosity based on their inherent value as a child of God, created in the image of God.

Prayer

Dear God, help me to see the beauty and value in each person I meet. If I fail to see it at first, help me to look more deeply, to act as a friend, and to show sincere interest in each person’s story. Guide me in the way of kindness and generosity. Amen.

Written by Nanette Sawyer, Minister for Congregational Life

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Sunday, July 17, 2016

Today’s Reading | Psalm 48

Reflection

As I write this devotion, I am in Montreat, North Carolina, teaching children’s handbells at the Presbyterian Association of Musicians Worship and Music conference. The theme of the conference is “Grace and Gratitude,” and it has been a beautiful week of heart-changing, meaningful worship.

The opening of Psalm 48 reminds me of Monday’s worship service, in which the pastor talked about how praise can encompass a wide array of emotions. Throughout the week, we have discussed the importance of praising God in all situations: when we are content, when we are depressed, when we are joyful, and when we are grieving.

Easier said than done, right? It can be very difficult to feel God’s love and presence when we are in a dark place. We may ask why we are going through difficult times and may even wonder if God is even with us. The pastor asked us to think of a person who praises God regardless of their situation—one who praises God in times of joy and times of sorrow. She then asked us to pray for that person and to challenge ourselves to do the same. Even in life’s rough patches, we can look for traces of God’s goodness—a hug, a heartfelt conversation with a friend, or even just a simple smile from someone walking by.

Who is someone that you know who is able to praise God in all circumstances? Pray for that person, and challenge yourself to do the same.

Prayer

Great and loving God, thank you for being gracious to me, even when I am not. Help me to always praise you, in good times and in bad. Amen.

Written by Briana Belding-Peck, Family Ministry Coordinator

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Monday, July 18, 2016

Today’s Reading | Acts 8:26–40

Reflection

“This is a desert place” sets the vision of this scripture so poignantly for me. Barren, hot, dry, and dusty. I can see the road stretching out ahead of Philip as he wonders why he has been sent here of all places.

It sometimes seems like we have been sent into our own version of a desert, and there is likely to be some grumbling about why we have been sent to this place.

Then in the midst of the desert you encounter the unexpected. This Ethiopian traveling to Jerusalem to worship made a big commitment for one who had to come all that way through the desert. His discovery of the writing of Isaiah was exciting but the words hard to comprehend. Yet here he was in the middle of the desert trying to grasp the gospel story as foretold before it had occurred.

This unlikely encounter in the midst of a desert brought both understanding and salvation to the Ethiopian but it also gives us a glimpse into how the gospel has been sent to the farthest corners of the world as well as into the deserts in our own lives.

When we find ourselves in the desert, we may not encounter an Ethiopian in a chariot, but we are sure to find seekers. If we don’t have Philip’s knowledge and skills to guide, we still have our own witness of the way we live into our faith.

Philip was “carried away” by the Spirit of the Lord, but in our version its more likely that we may only briefly encounter a seeker or be observed in the way we act and then never seen again.

I pray my witness will be a guide as I go down the desert road and that I may encounter many seekers along the way.

Prayer

Thank you, Lord, for sending me on my journey. Wherever it takes me I pray for your guidance and that I may be someone’s guide to your love and salvation, even in the small things I do and the way I live into my faith in you. Amen.

Written by Ed Coke, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Today’s Reading | Acts 9:1–19

Reflection

The Apostle Paul (née Saul) has one of the most dramatic conversion stories imaginable, going from persecuting Jesus’ disciples to becoming one, all in the span of a single scene. This Damascus Road Moment is noted for Saul’s change of heart, but I’ve always been fascinated by the change of vision that plays in the story as well.

Saul is blinded by Jesus’ appearance on the road—a term used both literally in his present and figuratively for his past. Although Saul, by his own account, was quite accomplished in Judaism, he came to view his zealousness for the Law as being incomplete without an accompaniment by God’s grace shown in Jesus Christ. For him, he had been blind in his early life, but now, when touched by Ananias and filled with the Holy Spirit, the scales had fallen from his eyes and his sight was restored.

Have you ever had such a moment? A moment of clarity that jarred you or made you reevaluate your prior thinking? I cannot claim to have had a religious conversion quite like Paul, but I still remember moments like seeing, for the first time as a young child, someone who was homeless, or traveling abroad and seeing poverty firsthand. In those moments, I realized that I could never look at my possessions the same way again—much as Paul’s vision was irrevocably changed.

To be a part of a community of faith is to be invited (or sometimes dragged) into moments when our vision can change—so may God help us, so that just like with Paul, the scales may fall from wherever our vision might be obscured.

Prayer

Lord God, I know that my own vision is limited, so as the famous hymn goes, be thou my vision. Help me to see clearly that which you would have me do, and help me to be the person you have called me to be. Amen.

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

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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Today’s Reading | Acts 9:26–31      

Reflection

My daughters are not too far away from moving on to college. We were recently talking about finding the perfect college and discerning gifts and a potential degree. I remember thinking how my life would be planned out the moment I crossed the stage to receive my diploma! Did this happen to you too? You graduate—so sure of yourself and what gifts you will be offering—only to experience life and its twists and turns. This must have been how Saul felt—so sure of his opinion and work. Then Jesus interrupted his life by twisting and turning it.

Twisting and turning can happen in so many ways in our lives. I have known people who are very sure of their gifts and vocation and venture through most of their life sharing their gifts. Then they retire and find their actual true gift or vocation—whatever that might be for them. I have known people who have many vocations by necessity in their life path, only to have them eventually all come together into a position that is perfect for them. I have also known people like Saul—so sure of himself and his position in society and opinion—who suddenly change to an opposite position through a sudden event. God is always with us.

When I am not sure what is next for me, I remember that God is at work in all of life’s twists and turns just as God was for Saul. I pray and listen

Prayer

Gracious God, please help me to trust where you are leading me and to believe in your guidance. Be with those who are in the process of trusting your word to lead them to do work in your name. Amen.

Written by Allison Santos, Executive Assistant

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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Today’s Reading | Acts 9:32–43

Reflection

I have always wrestled with the miracle stories of the Bible. This does not diminish my belief that God can do anything, but my mind struggles to imagine what it looks like to see someone healed by simply telling them to “get up.” If it was that easy, I suppose the world would be a much different place.

But there is something wonderful in the simplicity of this story. Peter doesn’t need to recite fancy prayers or go on a quest to bring someone back to life. Peter believes and allows God to work through him, and thus miracles happen that simply. Maybe this is where I go wrong; maybe I am overthinking miracles and my relationship with God.

Oftentimes we overthink our relationship with God, and this can sometimes lead to a spiritual analysis paralysis and we fail to move or take action. What would happen if we simply allowed God to move through us without all the overthinking? What wondrous ways could God’s work be done more than it already is? How can we simply allow God to work through us without overthinking it?

Prayer

God, help us to have a more simplified relationship with you. Work through us so that your work might be accomplished here in our world. Allow us to live simply with you. Amen.

Written by Shelley Donaldson, Senior High and Confirmation Youth Coordinator

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Friday, July 22, 2016

Today’s Reading | Psalm 51

Reflection

Psalm 51 is a penitent prayer written by King David after he was confronted by the prophet Nathan for his act of adultery with Bathsheba, as well as for the plan he had executed to have her husband killed on the battlefield.

David no sooner could hide from God than he could escape from his own guilty conscience. He was brought up against his total inability to extricate himself from his moral culpability. Brought to the end of himself, he turns to the only one who can cleanse and restore him, his merciful God. This is the central theme of Psalm 51—that atonement and reconciliation comes from God’s redeeming creational intervention.

David knew that only God can deliver from the alienation we create toward ourselves and others when we generate shame and guilt through wrong actions.

In the book of Romans Paul echoes David’s understanding in Romans 7:24. “Wretched man that I am, who can rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God it is Jesus Christ our Savior.”

David looks for life in that place where he has created death. He cries to God, “You do not rejoice in sacrifice, or I would bring it. . . . The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

David understood that all he could do is turn back to God and put himself at God’s mercy. As we see throughout scripture, it is in the turning back that an opening occurs in our heart, mind, and spirit. Through that opening God extends healing love and we are changed.

The cycle of repentance and reinstatement is part of a continual spiritual process that we are drawn into by God to complete in us a work. It is part of a repetitive redemptive journey we experience and seek time and again as we seek God’s saving, renewing spirit. Is it not a wonder that God always takes the initiative in drawing us to healing?

Prayer

Good Lord, in your mercy deliver us from contamination and corruption. Lead us, empower us, and enliven us in the redemptive life. Amen.

Written by Susan Cornelius, Replogle Center for Counseling and Well-Being

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Saturday, July 23, 2016

Today’s Reading | Acts 10:1–23

Reflection

Growing up in the church, I heard a lot of comments in Sunday school and Bible studies along the lines of “The Jews were biased toward the Gentiles” and “How could they be so rigid and prejudiced?” And while the Jewish people in the ancient world were prejudiced against the Gentiles (and vice versa!), the problem is that those kinds of remarks too easily distanced us, gave us a false sense of moral high ground, and refused to identify us, the church, with the Jewish people of Peter’s day. We failed to ask how we ourselves might be prejudiced—how we might consider some things “unclean” that are actually clean.

The Jewish people saw themselves as God’s people; we in the church today strive to be a community of God’s people. So then who are our Gentiles? Who do we see as “unclean” that “God has made clean?”

In many ways, exclusion is a natural human behavior. We create and cling to boundaries in our communities because it makes us feel safe. People and ways of life we aren’t familiar with make us uncomfortable, so we shut them out or, worse, demonize them. It was true in Peter’s day, and it’s true in ours. Amazingly, Peter—a product of his own cultural biases—was willing to walk out onto the water again and let God expand his boundaries. And we have a pretty big advantage that Peter didn’t have—Peter didn’t have a lot of radical, inclusive examples to learn from: we have two thousand years of inspiring stories and cultural evolution to draw upon. But it still takes courage to let go. The question is: are we willing to follow Peter’s lead?

Prayer

God, help us to be open to changing our assumptions. Let us be open to welcoming those into your church whom we might have pushed away, ignored, or forgotten in the past. Bring them—like Cornelius—to our doorstep, and help us to have Peter’s faith and humility as we welcome them into the family of God. Amen.

Written by Jeremy Pfaff, Editorial Assistant

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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Today’s Reading | Acts 10:24–33   

Reflection

The continuing story of Peter and Cornelius seems like a series of cases of mistaken identity. Today’s edition shows how much both of these men have misestimated one another and how God clarifies much through their encounter.

When we think of having a set of presuppositions about someone we don’t know well, we usually assume it means we’ve underestimated them or counted them out based on appearance, social status, etc. But the opposite can also be true and can be just as insidious: we may put someone on an undeserved and unrealistic pedestal based on those things, as well. Just because someone comes highly recommended, or holds an important spiritual or societal position, or comes from a certain background, or any number of other factors does not necessarily mean that we should “worship” the image we may have of them. Even the best human is still a human.

Because Cornelius first learned of Peter through a divine messenger, he treats Peter as divine when he arrives, with Cornelius falling on his face in worship. To have an unknown-to-him but recognizable man appear after such a vision—and presumably after months and perhaps years of prayer—must have made Peter seem larger than life. Thankfully Peter stops him immediately and with blunt honesty. “Look, please don’t think I’m greater than I am,” he might have said. “Before God appeared to me the same as to you, I would have passed right by you. I was prejudiced and xenophobic. God’s grace covers us both.” Peter’s honesty cuts to the heart of the matter: it’s only through divine grace that either of these flawed men—or any of us—can strive for better. Or truly hear what God offers.

Prayer

Divine God, help us to more clearly see our humanity, for better or for worse. May we see your image in every person we meet, as well as see them for who they are. Thank you for seeing and loving us, even with our flaws. Amen.

Written by Sarah Van der Ploeg, Member of the Morning Choir

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Monday, July 25, 2016

Today’s Reading | Acts 10:34–48  

Reflection

I’m not sure I get what you’re saying, Peter.

“Even on the Gentiles.” Even on them? Really? Even on those who are not The Chosen? That’s craziness . . .

“In every nation, anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Every nation? Anyone? What does “what is right” mean, anyway?

“How he went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed.” That’s it? Do good and heal the oppressed?

Now, let me see if I’ve got this straight. You’re saying, if someone fears God and does what is right, that is, if someone does good and heals the oppressed, then they are acceptable to God? No matter where they come from? Even if they are not “God’s elite?” Is that really what you mean?

And Peter said unto them, “Did I stutter?”

There is no “other” with God. As much as we like to break the world into our little tribes, our petty little world of “us” and “them,” the truth is that we are all one species, floating on a small speck of dust in a vast cosmos, lit by a fragile sunbeam. Dividing ourselves into smaller and smaller groups is, in the vast scheme of things, a frivolous and self-serving endeavor.

God’s love is to everyone, regardless of where they come from, regardless of who they are. He’s pretty clear on that point. Division and alienation? That’s the work of the oppressor, and our job is to heal it.

Prayer

Lord, remind us that dividing your children into smaller and smaller groups is the work of small people, that you are no respecter of persons, and that your love is for all people without exception. Amen.

Written by Rob Koon, Coordinator of Fine Arts

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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Today’s Reading | Acts 11:1–18

Reflection

I have always been a fan of the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Just as the Gospels express the detailed narrative of Jesus’ life, ministry, and passion, so Acts tells the story of the early Christian movement through the experiences of specific characters in particular circumstances. The first confirmation and commissioning class that I taught forty years ago utilized a curriculum with Acts as the foundation. I still recall how well it worked (at least from the teacher’s perspective!).

In today’s verses we hear of Peter’s visit to Old First Church in Jerusalem. His missionary activities had stirred up some significant criticism, for he, like Jesus, had been keeping disreputable company. Peter had visited in the homes of Gentiles, non-Jews, and had even eaten with them! So we hear a second version of his vision and his response. A second Pentecost had taken place, the surging Spirit of the living God out in front once again.

One of my favorite phrases comes as Peter seeks to defend himself: “Who was I, that I could hinder God?” These haunting words have guided and sustained me in my efforts to follow the Lord of life. When I have held too tightly to treasured patterns from years past, have I hindered the in breaking of God’s Spirit? On other occasions, when a splendid-seeming new idea distracts me from the valued rhythms of life and ministry, am I hindering the time-honored continuity of the Holy One yet in our midst?

May each of us attend to Peter’s example, remaining open to the Spirit’s guidance, whether upholding tradition or discerning when to make a new beginning at the Spirit’s leading.

Prayer

“Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
  Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
  Melt me; mold me; fill me; use me.
  Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.” Amen.

(From “Spirit of the Living God” by Daniel Iverson)

Reflection written by Jeff Doane, Parish Associate for Older Adults

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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Today’s Reading | Acts 16:11–15   

Reflection

I love this story of Lydia for many reasons. Recently I preached a sermon about Lydia and how important it was that Paul didn’t come to Macedonia only willing to encounter God in the way he expected. Lydia is surprising in her faith and leadership because she is a woman and a Macedonian, but it is her faith that provides a gateway for Christianity to spread to a whole new world. Lydia’s story reminds us that God doesn’t only work through people and situations that we expect.

It’s important to note, however, that just as Paul had to be open to encountering God in Lydia, Lydia had to be open to Paul. And she is. Surprisingly radically open. One of the things I love most about Lydia is the radical hospitality she offers in the name of her faith.

Lydia encounters these strange men at her own place of prayer and business. They are unfamiliar to her and no doubt carry assumptions about her. She could be wary and dismissive, but she isn’t. She is not only open to the words of Paul; she is eager to be joined in community with him. She has her whole household baptized and then absolutely insists that Paul and his party stay at her house while they seek to grow and build the church. Imagine if our own world—with all its fearful prejudice—were as open to welcoming one another and building a community of faith together. Imagine the ways that faith and love might blossom and give birth to a whole new kind of world. Let us seek to be as faithful as Lydia and as open to unexpected movement of the Spirit.

Prayer

Holy God, we give you thanks for your presence in our lives and in our world. Help us to constantly encounter you in new ways and new people, and help us seek to love them as you love all of us. Amen.

Written by Layton Williams, Pastoral Resident

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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Today’s Reading | Romans 8:31–39

Reflection

Do you have sayings that you learned in your youth that resonated with you but develop richer meaning as you age? For me, most of these relate to music. My teacher, B. R. Henson, was fond of reminding us that “no two notes are alike unless they are specifically marked to be alike.” I studied with him for about five years in college and continued to learn lessons from him until his death. The truth is I still learn from him and from his wife though both have passed. This is one of the marks of great teaching.

In the years I knew B. R. Henson, I would hear these sayings countless times. As others began saying, “I’ve heard that before. I know this information,” I began wondering, “Why that story now?” Then it happened. I realized that if no two notes are alike, neither are any two phrases, no two ritards, nothing. “Oh! That is what he means.” I continue to have those moments. I have the same moments with God.

Paul is a great teacher. “If God is for us, who is against us?” It’s pretty easy to feel righteous and justified when you grow up in a strong faith community where everyone looks like you—literally. Everyone believes like you. Everyone defends against criticism with the same scriptures that you do. It’s easy to convince yourself that you are right. You’re a young and confident Christian.

I’m older now. I read Paul differently. If God is for us, does it matter who is standing against us? Paul reminds us that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ—not even ourselves. Who is to condemn? Christ alone. We are called to accept and love all—humbly and without condition—no matter who stands against us.

I heard it in a sermon long ago and it stuck. “Accept them all and let God sort them out.”

Prayer

Lord God, lead me in your ways. Guide me in your paths. Continue to teach me the ways of the Christ. Help me to remember that for you to teach, I must be willing to learn. Soli Deo Gloria. Amen.

Written by Rob Sinclair, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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Friday, July 29, 2016

Today’s Reading | Romans 12:1–8

Reflection

In the Contemporary English Version translation, these verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans begin with “Dear friends, God is good.” These words of encouragement aren’t meant just to get us through difficult times but to have us to think about how God can change the way we think so that we can be pleasing to God. We are asked to use good sense and to measure ourselves by the amount of faith we have been given. Later we are told that faith and gifts are much the same as Paul goes on to talk about the abilities or gifts that we are given.

As I look about our church family I see these gifts, almost like name tags, on each of us. I see prophesy in our teaching and ruling elders who help discern direction for our congregation; those who teach are all around us in Sunday School and the Academy for Faith and Life and group discussions; encouragers help seek out the gifts of others that might otherwise go unnoticed; givers make possible our plans and dreams; leaders take on positions of responsibility; and those who care for others, like Stephen Ministers, do it with love and cheer.

It takes all of us, working together, as God wills us to do. In other verses Paul talks about the parts of the body that have to be knit into one. By being the best we can be in our roles, we can “offer our bodies to God as a living sacrifice, pure and pleasing.”

Prayer

Father God, we are many and diverse in our gifts. Thank you for the abilities you give each of us. May we act as you would want us to act. Amen.

Written by Roger Wilson, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Today’s Reading | Romans 12:9–21

Reflection

These scripture verses provide a succinct description of how to be a Christian. The New Revised Standard Version Bible gives this passage the heading: “Marks of the True Christian.” Clearly what signifies a true Christian is not what one believes but whether and how one loves others and serves God. It is about much more than “be nice”; we are held to a high bar in our response to evil, hatred, and enemies. Rather than repay evil for evil, we are to end any cycle of retaliation or revenge by reversing the energy: “bless those who persecute you” and “overcome evil with good.”

There is a form of prayer called “Examen of Conscience.” Through that prayer, you are invited to review your past twenty-four hours and name things for which you are grateful. Then you reflect on where you may have been out of sync with God and God’s ways. You then give God thanks and praise, as well as confess where you need forgiveness and help. Someone said, “If you want to grow spiritually, don’t do anything. Just notice.” Noticing where we are loving and failing to love opens the door for God to reshape us. Each day you may pray by reflecting on one or more of these paired questions:

Was I inauthentic with anyone? How did I express mutual love and live peaceably with others?

Did I show hospitality to strangers, contribute to the needs of others, or serve the lowly? Where did I rejoice or weep with others or fail to do so?

Was I arrogant or haughty? Where did I choose to take the high road?

Prayer

Gracious God, I want to live in harmony, rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, and persevere in prayer. Deepen my love for you and others. Amen.

Written by Victoria G. Curtiss, Associate Pastor

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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Today’s Reading | Psalm 145

Reflection

Great is the Lord. I find it difficult to find words more powerful than those four. Great is the Lord. People everywhere see, feel, and depend on those four words every day. Within this psalm, four passages remind me of God’s greatness.

“On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.” I revel in what God created for all of us. The beautiful blue skies. The green grass. The crystal waters. Close my eyes, take a deep breath and enjoy. Listen to the glorious sounds of nature. Deafen myself in the silence of God’s peace.

“The Lord is good to all.” God does not discriminate. He does not judge. God sees beauty in all living things—even when we can’t.

“The Lord is near for all who call on him.” All you have to do is ask. Pray. Meditate. Reach out for help when you are in need. God will be there for you. Leading you.

“He fulfills the desire of all who fear him; he also hears their cry, and saves them.” Do not fear God. God knows what is best for all of us. He will save us—even in our deepest despair. Just ask; God will hear you. And God will save you. Trust.

Prayer

Lord, let us enjoy your power and beauty every day—and give us the ability to reach out and ask for help when your Spirit and guidance is needed. We will not fear the mysteries in our lives, trusting that you will protect us. Great is the Lord. Amen.

Written by Doug Whitmer, Director of Human Resources and Office Administration

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