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Devotions from Fourth Presbyterian Church

October 1–5
October 6–12
October 13–19
October 20–26
October 27–31


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October 1, 2019                                        

Today’s Scripture Reading | Lamentations 1:1–6

Reflection
It can be hard to read this, tempting to lock it away as history or allegory. It helps to remember that these passages were written as poetry, a form that, for me, can make room for emotion in a way other forms do not.

I have felt betrayed by friends, abandoned by loved ones, miserable in the night with tears on my face. And more than once. I have felt exiled, by choice when I was too heartbroken to stay, or in being shunned as I stayed put.

Even as I mourned I knew I had my own actions in part to thank. Maybe not in full, maybe not to the degree that I suffered, but I had some part in it, some piece I was going to need to address. Knowing this didn’t make me feel any better, but it did mean I wasn’t a passive participant. There was action I could take to change, if not that particular situation, then my future.

This isn’t true for all suffering, of course. Too often the temptation is to assume that there is, that suffering is in some way deserved. It’s yet another way we work to keep suffering at a distance from ourselves. But there is no end to those who have been abandoned by others with the means to turn away.

Why do we read this? To remind ourselves of our own suffering and place it within a larger story. To remind ourselves of others’ suffering, that not all have what we do. To open our ears so that we remember that this moment of suffering, ours or others’, is not the final word. The story goes on. And if we listen, we may be surprised to learn how we can act.

Prayer
Loving God, in the midst of all suffering may I remember your power and mercy; may I call on your strength and grace, so I may keep moving. Amen.

Written by Anne Ellis, Program Manager for Congregational Life

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October 2, 2019                      

Today’s Scripture Reading | Habakkuk 1:1–4, 2:1–4

Reflection
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
 . . . judgment comes forth perverted.

I can’t imagine how the prophet Habakkuk’s words could feel more relevant than they do in Chicago in 2019. The risk of becoming numb to the “strife and contention” around us is real, as we are, every day, pummeled with news of another young person killed violently, another mass shooting in a school or mall or place of worship, another natural disaster that scientists tie to climate change. It is so tempting to pick up a book instead of the newspaper or watch a sitcom instead of the news.

Write the vision; make it plain.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it.
 . . . the righteous live by their faith.

Neither can I imagine a clearer or timelier response from our God. Engage with the world as it is; think about it, write about it, speak about it. But do not lose hope in the world as I created it to be. Be in right relationship with God, neighbor, creation. In the words of Pope Paul VI, “If you want peace, work for justice.”

Prayer
How long, O Lord? Grant me a righteous spirit, plain words, and tireless faith so that I may love the world as you do and participate in its healing. Amen.

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

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October 3, 2019               

Today’s Scripture Reading | Psalm 90:1–6, 13–17

Reflection
At first glance, this is a pretty dark Psalm. “God is eternal, and God turns us mortals back to dust.” It’s reminiscent of Ecclesiastes’ “Meaningless! Meaningless! . . . Everything is meaningless!” or Isaiah’s “All people are grass . . . the grass withers, the flower fades.” In my mind’s ear, I hear Brahms’ ponderously foreboding setting of the Isaiah text from his German Requiem, pounding drums and loud bass voices reminding me of my inextricable demise and humanity’s eventual, unavoidable downfall. “Yeah, yeah, I get it. God is all-powerful and I am but a worm. We’re all gonna die. Thanks for the reminder. Not like I needed one.”

In fact, by the time I reached verse 13’s call for God to “turn” in compassion, I thought, what’s the use? The God described in this particular Psalm is eternal, rock-like, and seems to really like sweeping humanity away like a dream. Why would I turn to that God expecting any kind of help?

But then it hit me: that eternal nature of God is exactly why that call to turn is so important, so powerful, and so essential. God’s everlasting nature is one of steadfastness, and of steadfast love (verse 14). In a world where humans are fickle and frail, situations are ever-changing and life never feels steady, God is. And God has remained so from generation to generation. We—even we—can call out to that God, and expect to be heard. Perhaps even move that eternal Rock.

And that’s the bright light in this dark-Psalmed world, both then and now.

Prayer
Everlasting God, You are eternal and I am not. The problems I face seem like immoveable mountains to me, but are only sand piles to you. Move, Alpha and Omega God. And sweep away the dust ravaging your enduring plan of love. Amen.

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

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October 4, 2019                                     

Today’s Scripture Reading | 2 Timothy 1:1–14

Reflection
One of the most memorable and impressionable experiences of my childhood involved overnight stays at my grandmother’s home. A devout missionary Baptist, my maternal grandmother was fond of singing the Lord’s Prayer before going to bed. Rather than join in, I simply delighted in listening to her rendition with its haunting, almost bluesy melody, most always sung in a minor key. While I did not know it at the time, hearing her prayers would years later lay the pattern for my own sense of faith, one that like her own was resolute but open to the mystery and sorrow of life in the minor key. In an indirect, but perhaps intentional way, the singing of prayers was one way that my grandmother bequeathed faith to me. It is remarkable then in Paul’s letter that in praising Timothy’s sincere faith, Paul acknowledges the faith of two notable women in Timothy’s life: his mother and grandmother.

In their book on the Ten Commandments, theologians Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon suggest there is nothing quite as theologically provocative as a belly button. It is a sign that we did not nor cannot create ourselves. The navel is a fresh reminder that parents birthed us into being and that faith is not so much caught or taught as given from one generation to the next. The laying on of hands, to which Paul refers, is also a sign that we employ within worship, of not only faith, but also the mantle of its joys and responsibilities, transmitted from one person to another. The faithful witnesses who serve as a bridge between God and us put into our lives a gift that is to be celebrated but also used as we seek to live joyful and loving lives.

Who has helped birth your own faith? Who has kindled inside you a belief in your own belovedness and longing for a better world.

Prayer
It is in you, O’ God, that we see who we truly are. We give thanks for those that lead us to recognize you and embrace our identity. We lift our hearts in gratitude for those that cradle us when our faith is fragile or threadbare, who plant within our anxious minds a desire to seek you. Amen.

Written by Joseph L. Morrow, Minister for Evangelism

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October 5, 2019                              

Today’s Scripture Reading | Psalm 121

Reflection
This past summer, my family gathered for a reunion at a cabin in the Smokey Mountains. There were twenty-three of us gathered, including four kids under the age of four: glorious chaos. One night my cousin and I went out for an adventure and discovered a place where we could take a chair lift to the top of a mountain. After a short hike up the hill, through a freshly planted garden, we found a secluded spot where we had spectacular views of the sunset. The next night we returned to our secret spot on the hilltop for another amazing natural show.

As I read the psalm, I am reminded of how everything else melted away as I sat on the grass watching the colors change and the mountains around us glow in the setting sun. Sometimes as I rush around the city, I long to go back to the mountaintop. But this psalm is a reminder that our help doesn’t come from the mountains; it comes from the creator of those mountains, who is the creator of all things. I don’t need to be on vacation, on top of a mountain, to be close to God. God is with me—in the chaos of four kids under four, in my overcrowded bus on the way to work, or as I sit here writing this devotional. I may want the majesty of the mountaintop moments, but there is a certain majesty in the everyday, too.

Prayer
Remind me, God, that you are with me. Even when life is busy and chaotic. Even when I don’t take the time to notice. Thank you for the mountaintop moments, and help me to appreciate the moments in between. Amen.

Written by Katie Patterson, Youth Ministry Program Manager

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October 6, 2019                 

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

Reflection
The disciples are pleading for faith here. They’ve heard that word on Jesus’ lips several times already in Luke’s Gospel. To mention just one: a woman washes Jesus’ feet with oil and tears, eliciting righteous condemnation from religious authorities. Jesus simply tells her, “Your faith has saved you.”

Jesus’ teaching right before verse 5 contends that his disciples must forgive a person who sins against them seven times a day so long as they repent. They seem wise enough to know such grace is not humanly possible. It takes faith—bold, defiant, and norm-challenging faith like that of the woman’ who bathed Jesus’ feet.

Such faith is hard, hence the apostles’ plea. Yet Jesus wants them to know they already have it. “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed . . . ,” he answers them. The grammar of the construction assumes that they do have such faith, like if someone said, “If you’re a Christian . . .” The faith they’re pleading for they already have. Maybe they’re just not using it.

The way Jesus illustrates this to the apostles is uncomfortable, because it draws upon a first-century household convention of master and slave. But sit with the discomfort and see that Jesus is assuring us that we, as his disciples, are in the position of the servant and always will be. That, too, is faith, to do “only what we ought to have done.”

Maybe our discipleship doesn’t need greater faith but a more active deployment of what faith we presently have.

Prayer
Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief. Amen.

Written by Rocky Supinger, Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry

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October 7, 2019                                   

Today’s Scripture Reading | Lamentations 3:19–26

Reflection
“Patience is a virtue” is a familiar cliché that may be easier said than done, especially during times of prolonged suffering. Life circumstances are unpredictable. There are good times and not so good times. In this life, suffering is inevitable. During those difficult moments, it is vital to remember that our circumstances are never superior to the promises of God.

The author of Lamentations experienced unimaginable circumstances. Jerusalem collapsed. The people were carried into exile. Their rivals were taunting them and rejoicing. To add insult to injury, it felt as though God had left them alone without care or support. But in the middle of distress, the prophet proclaims, “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” The ability to wait for something without getting angry or upset is a valuable quality that fuels our faith in God.

There are times you must realize that those situations beyond our control require that we wait patiently for God to aid and strengthen us. Though the prophet expresses feelings of hopelessness over tragic circumstances, hope is renewed with the assurance that relief is on the way. “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” God is faithful to provide all that we need.

Every morning that we open our eyes there is an opportunity to acknowledge the faithfulness of God. When suffering and struggle seem to be a routine occurrence, we must claim the eternal faithfulness of God as victory over trials. Always remember that God is stronger than the struggle. With patience you will realize the power of God in your life.

Prayer
Holy God and Parent of all, lead us to know your faithfulness. Give us the strength to wait patiently during times of struggle, knowing that your mercy provides the protection and hope needed to overcome whatever troubles us. Amen.

Written by Robert Crouch, Director of Volunteer Ministry

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October 8, 2019                           

Today’s Scripture Reading | Psalm 137

Reflection
“Home is where I want to be
Pick me up and turn me around . . .”

These are lyrics from a Talking Heads song, “This Must Be the Place.” The song itself was written as a love song and it is meant to capture the euphoria and confusion of its author about this new feeling of love he has experienced. So the song itself has little to do with the context of Psalm 137. I know that.

The context of Psalm 137 is a despairing people who have been exiled. Their temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed. They have been exiled to a strange land by their captors, the Babylonians. Everything familiar to them has been left behind. So I can imagine them saying “Home is where I want to be. Pick me up and turn me around.”

These people who had been ripped away from their homes were trying to figure out how to sing the Lord’s song, how to keep singing, even in this foreign land where nothing was the same. Language was different. Diet was unusual. How would they keep singing in a land that was so strange to them, and if they were to keep singing, how would they be sure they wouldn’t forget the best of what once was?

I can’t help thinking of the refugees all over the world who have been torn from their homelands and the yearning they must feel. But I also am reminded that if we choose to follow Jesus in our living, there are times when we can’t feel at home. Following a way of faith puts us at odds with so many of the cultural norms that surround us, with government agenda, with corporate ladder-climbing, and more. And so we yearn for a feeling of home, but we also try to figure out how to keep singing the Lord’s song. The question the exiled were asking was the right question. It should be our question too.

Prayer
Gracious Lord, help me keep singing your song even when I feel far from any sense of home. Help me to know what that song is. And even though home is where I want to be, remind me that my true home is the journey you have chosen for me. Amen.

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

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October 9, 2019       

Today’s Scripture Reading | Matthew 9:9–17

Reflection
A recurring theme in this Gospel passage is the transformation of old ways of thinking, believing, worshiping, and acting into something radically new.

Jesus calls Matthew, a tax collector despised by Jesus’ own community, to be a disciple. He shares a meal with sinners and tax collectors who are outcasts and outside of the sanctioned religious leadership. He teaches that God desires mercy, not temple sacrifice as was the custom. In short, he turns traditional religious observance on its head.

A good teacher, Jesus uses two examples to illustrate: the futility of sewing a new patch on an old cloth, and pouring new wine into old wineskins

Jesus’ words and actions presage Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away. Behold, the new has come!” 

How do we hear Jesus’ words in our place and time? What accepted (and perhaps unexamined) religious beliefs need to be transformed and made new? 

One is in the emerging understanding that the care of creation is a moral responsibility. As Christians we have long been aware that our faith in Jesus calls us to care for those in need. Now we recognize that this care extends to the planet, its air and waters, its fields and flowers, its animals and birds of the air. Our efforts on behalf of the created world are inextricable from our care for humans, not only because a healthy environment is necessary for life to flourish. We also recognize that creation manifests and reveals the divine, that is God.

Prayer
Help us to turn our minds and hearts to loving your creation, O God. May we be good stewards of what you have made. Amen.

Written by Margaret Brennan, Replogle Center for Counseling and Well-Being

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October 10, 2019                           

Today’s Scripture Reading | Psalm 111

Reflection
The psalmist created a poem that happens to address those times when we are feeling scattered with demands of everyday life, to bring us back into focus on what is most important: praising God. These words can instill new confidence and a sense of peace knowing we truly need not worry, as we are always loved and supported by God.

This year my husband and I have made big changes in our lives. We both retired, we sold our home, moved into temporary housing, and then moved across the country to a new home in a new town and into the next chapter of our lives. With these major themes there were many details and frequent sleepless nights making mental (and written) lists, prioritizing, worrying about missing something important, and managing an underlying anxiety of the unknown path we chose to travel. Often it seems overwhelming.

But reading this psalm is as if the psalmist is tapping me on the shoulder, reminding me what is most important and bringing clarity to my life. It reminds me to acknowledge God with praise and gratitude for the resources God has made available for me, as well as you, offering just a few of the major ways God has impacted all of us.

The writer extols us to understand that God is way bigger than we are and that to fear God is respectful—a wise and healthy way to live.

Prayer
Dear God, you gave us these wonderful words. You gave us your Son to be our example. Guide me back to this song when I am unfocused, when I am fretting and unable to prioritize, that I may sing your praises freely and joyfully today and forever; in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Written by Ann Murray, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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October 11, 2019 

Today’s Scripture Reading | 2 Timothy 2:8–15

Reflection
Prison in Rome was a unique experience. In the first century C.E., Rome had a population of over one million, and there was only one prison, the Tullianum. It was small, generally reserved for important people. If you were, say, the king of the Gauls, you would be brought back to Rome in chains, paraded around during the victor’s triumph, and then thrown in the Tullianum. There you might be kept alive for a bit in the damp, rat-infested cells, dragged out periodically to demonstrate the supremacy of the state, but once you outlived your propaganda shelf life you soon reached the end of your physical life.

Nobodies didn’t go to prison in Rome. If you were imprisoned, if you were in chains, it was a sign that you were considered important. The Tullianum was the last residence of both Peter and Paul.

“But the Word of God is not chained.”

Paul knew that chains meant you were a threat and had to be controlled, paraded around to demonstrate power. And that’s not how the word of God is to be used. The word of God is not restricted, the word of God is not under compulsion, the word of God is not servant to human authorities.

And yet humans keep trying to chain it. They loop their interpretations around it and pull the knots tight and try to haul the word of God out to enhance their own power, to show off their status. You never have to look far to see someone trying to force the word of God to serve their purposes.

But the word of God—the wonderful, powerful, subversive word of God—the word that says that God loves the lowest, the least, and the lost as much as the proud and mighty, the word that says love your neighbor as yourself, that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, that word is not chained and subjugated by humans. And that thing you see people parading around to show how godly they are? Maybe it’s not what they want you to think it is.

Prayer
Lord, thank you for your word, the word that upsets order and confounds the powerful. Teach us to follow it and find freedom. Amen.

Written by Rob Koon, Coordinator of Fine Arts

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October 12, 2019 

Today’s Scripture Reading | Psalm 66:1–12

Reflection
The most wonderful part of my job is leading a thousand or more people in singing the hymns every Sunday during worship services. Not only is it the most enjoyable, but it is also by far the most important thing I do each week. When we sing together we are united in one thought, contemplating words that were just written or words that have shaped Christians for more than a thousand years.

As we sing the musical phrases we even become united in one breath, breathing together at the end of the musical phrase and between each verse. There has been evidence that after a few of these breaths, most of our heart rates even become synchronized, beating together like one heart.

But the unity goes beyond just those in the sanctuary itself; we are united with generations who have sung these words and notes before us as well as the generations who will sing them after us—one continuous thread of praise to the God who made us.

I am so thankful that Fourth Church is a congregation that loves to sing, lifting our voices to God in an unending hymn of praise. I have a theory that you can tell if a church is healthy just by the way that a congregation sings, and judging from that Fourth Church is a very healthy church. Thanks be to God!

Prayer
O God, whom saints and angels delight to worship, help us to sing your praises in all that we do. Help us to sing with joy knowing that you alone are being glorified. Help us to sing with understanding so that we may know you more fully. Help us to sing with abandon so that we may be lost in your love and wonder. Amen.

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

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October 13, 2019 

Today’s Scripture Reading | Luke 17:11–19

Reflection
Luke’s account of Jesus healing ten lepers—and only one thanking Jesus for the healing—is often interpreted as being a teaching about the need for gratitude, but Luke seems to be using Jesus’ praise for this individual in a different way. Nestled in-between the man’s thanks and Jesus’ praise, Luke quickly inserts a detail: “And he was a Samaritan”—a comment so out of the blue that it must have had importance for Luke and Luke’s audience.

Indeed, the Gospel of Luke seems quite interested in the Jewish-Samaritan relationship: the Parable of the Good Samaritan only appears in Luke, and Luke includes outreach to Samaritans as one of the early pushes for the apostles. In most of these instances (though not always; see Luke 9:51–56!), Samaritans were portrayed in a positive light—a marked shift from how they were viewed in Judea during Jesus’ time. The one-sentence recap is that Samaritans were the ancestors of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, but post-exilic disputes over the temple and a Samaritan partnership with the hated and brutal ruler Antiochus IV around 160 years earlier had led to a sharp break between Jews and Samaritans.

This continued positive portrayal of a people many would have considered “enemies” is a reminder of how Jesus’ ministry should force us to reevaluate the many cultural and political barriers that we assemble. These divisions are antithetical to the Gospel, and we need to see and claim the collective humanity of people whom we label, consciously or unconsciously, as “others” or “enemies.”

Prayer
Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart. Help me to recognize that everyone I encounter today, whether in person or in a news story, has been claimed, known, and loved by you—and may that recognition change how I treat them as well. Amen.

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

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October 14, 2019 

Today’s Scripture Reading | 1 Corinthians 10:23–34                  

Reflection
Why was there so much attention to food in the Bible? And why did the Apostle Paul go into so much detail with the church at Corinth about where, when, what, and with whom they could eat? The issues here are limits and freedom through Christ. The discussion arises as early Christians are challenged to integrate the practices of very different communities—Jews and Gentiles—who find themselves in the crosshairs between inherited practices and their new tradition, Christianity. In this passage, it all comes down to food.

I recall that as a university chaplain many of my students had restrictions on what they could and could not eat. For some it was digestive challenges. For others it was their religious practice, such as Jewish and Muslim students’ needs for kosher or halal. For others it was a social or political choice to be vegan or vegetarian or no meat except fish or to eat nothing with eyes. There were times when I found myself challenged by what I could serve to groups. Like Paul and the early Christian community there is a clear call to honor the needs of those who are part of the community. And there is also a declaration of freedom to eat without fear of harming oneself or those in the church. In my setting, though it was challenging, the knowledge that we attended to the specific dietary needs of our students brought amazing freedom and a deep sense of connection.

Our Christian faith works at so many levels—from the cosmic to the creaturely. We not only practice a faith that proclaims radical liberation through Jesus Christ in glorifying God, but also engages our daily practices to build up the community through attentive care. Relinquishing restrictions and supporting others’ needs by our actions exhibits radical freedom in Christ. All of this is done as an expression of our commitment to love one another with sacrifice and joy.

Prayer
Great and holy God, may this day be a banquet of joy where all your children are fed with nourishing food and a feast of love to your glory! Amen.

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

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October 15, 2019 

Today’s Scripture Reading | Jeremiah 29:1, 4–7          

Reflection
The recipients of the letter from the prophet Jeremiah must have been startled! Here they were, having just been forced to move to the land of their archenemy Babylon, hoping and praying for an early return to their home city of Jerusalem. Jeremiah, still living back there with other conquered Israelites, instead sends these instructions from their God: Sit tight. Live life as if you were back home. Grow your families. Get gardens planted. Be God’s people right where you are.

Even more unsettling is Jeremiah’s confirmation that it was God who caused the total disruption of their lives. Now God’s exiled people are to pray for their captors and the life they share together. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

In my prior congregation, we went through an exile experience. We had founded Lincoln Park Community Shelter with three other churches and were now seeking to renovate the lower level of our church building to house, feed, support, and transform the lives of neighbors experiencing homelessness. Numbers of our residential neighbors were deeply opposed to this ministry. There were hostile signs in the windows of some nearby homes. We were opposed in zoning hearings and even sued by several individuals.

Yet we persisted and, finally, succeeded. Reconciliation with opponents took place. The words of Jeremiah upheld us then and sustain me now. Seek the welfare of the city where we find ourselves (along with all its peoples). Further the common good. In Chicago’s welfare, we will find our welfare.

Prayer
Mighty and mysterious God, who is with us in each and every moment, I am grateful for the prophetic self-criticism that you grant us. Help us discern your will apart from our habitual patterns. May we glimpse your purposes at work over the long haul and respond, trusting in you and your ways, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Written by Jeffrey Doane, Parish Associate for Older Adults

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October 16, 2019 

Today’s Scripture Reading | 2 Kings 5:1–3, 7–15

Reflection
It’s interesting to think about the relationships between all the characters in this story. First, there is Naaman, who is described as a mighty warrior. He had a lot of social power, and some of that because of his violence. He was in high favor with the king, because he had been able to conquer and dominate others. He had led raids on other peoples and kidnapped a young girl who was forced into servitude, made into a slave, serving Naaman’s wife.

Naaman had power, political respect, and material wealth. We don’t read it in this selection, but in verse five he gathers his wealth to buy his health from the king of Israel. He brings “ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments.” Naaman had it all, but still he suffered. He had a skin disease that he was willing to pay a lot to be healed from.

The kidnapped slave girl has none of Naaman’s power, but she has wisdom, respect for people, connections enough to know who can heal. This is a different kind of power. She also has compassion for his suffering, enough to offer the people resources that he needs.

Naaman’s servants also have a kind of power different from Naaman’s but similar to that of the young girl. They listen and they trust the words of Elisha, the prophet. When Naaman gets angry and is about to walk away from his own salvation, his own healing, his servants encourage him to listen and trust—to try the healing that Elisha offers.

After doing these things—listening, trusting, and trying—Naaman is healed to such a degree that he is transformed into a servant himself. Naaman goes to the prophet Elisha and says, “Please accept a present from your servant.” Naaman is transformed from a military leader into a servant leader.

Prayer
Loving God, help me to listen, trust, and try the things that can heal me. Give me humility to learn from those around me. Help me to be a servant leader, filled with wisdom, respect for people, and compassion for all those who suffer. Amen.

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

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October 17, 2019 

Today’s Scripture Reading | Matthew 10:24–33

Reflection
I first became familiar with the American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson during my sophomore year of college at the University of Missouri-Columbia. I was studying instrumental music education and was taking my first of many music history classes. We received cassette tapes with music that we needed to learn and memorize for our “drop the needle” quizzes, and Mahalia Jackson was on one of those tapes. I fell in love with her voice and her music, particularly her performance of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”

This passage is another reminder of the great love and concern God has for all of creation, from the tiniest sparrow to each and every one of us. It is easy to get caught up in the material things in life—money, our possessions, or how we rank in our community, workplace, or social group. We are bombarded with images from social media posts showing people with the “perfect life,” and it is easy to feel less than and unimportant compared to other people. God doesn’t see us in that way, though. God pays great attention to all of us and cares for us more than we can imagine. No matter how small or unimportant we may feel at times, we are loved, supported, and valued by God.

“I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free, for his eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.”

Prayer
Thank you, dear God, for your deep love and care that you show me. On days when I’m feeling discouraged and unloved, help me to remember your constant compassion. Amen.

Written by Briana Belding-Peck, Family Ministry Coordinator

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October 18, 2019 

Today’s Scripture Reading | 2 Timothy 3:14—4:5

Reflection
Various translations of this passage yield some interesting things to think about (research into “itching ears” in 4:3 was quite the distraction!), but one phrase in 4:5 is the same no matter where I look: “do the work of an evangelist.”

Early in my adult life I was skittish about using the word evangelist because of its close connection to television preachers and street-corner apostles; both groups often shouted and talked too much (for me) about who was excluded from the kingdom of God.

Somewhere along the way, though, I started feeling comfortable with the word through its etymology. The Greek word from which evangelist is derived means “messenger of good news.” What’s the good news? There’s quite a bit, actually. We belong to a God whose abundant love poured forth into a creation of beauty and wonder. God’s Son, Jesus, lived as a man in first-century Judea to show us how expansively loving human life could be. He suffered, died, and was raised from the dead, rearranging forever notions about earning salvation. The Spirit—unpredictable, quickening, invitational, and fiery—dwells with us now. And every day we are offered the opportunity to be in relationship with this Trinity and to experience God’s forgiveness, grace, and mercy—and to let it spill out through our presence, words, and actions.

It is good news. It is work to proclaim it in a world that’s not terribly interested.

Do the work.

Prayer
Word of God, give me the strength and courage to use my words in service of you. Lend me your eloquence, persuasiveness, and perceptiveness about what to say to whom. May I evangelize well. Amen.

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

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October 19, 2019 

Today’s Scripture Reading | Psalm 98             

Reflection
Marvelous things. I don’t know about you, but I am ready for some marvelous things. I am ready to sing a song of praise, to listen to music of celebration, to hear the earth roar and tremble with joy. I love the optimism of this psalm. The recognition of God’s kingdom. The anticipation of grace. 

But I am troubled. I look at the violence of the world around us; at poverty and racism and hate; at our good earth under siege; at dysfunctional government and at self-interest overwhelming human interest and I am troubled. How do I reconcile what is with what should be? 

Perhaps I should just lose myself in the poetry and promise of the psalm. That would be easy. Just shut out all of the badness and embrace the gladness. But I don’t think that’s what we have signed up for. I don’t think our discipleship allows us the luxury of blindness. By all means we can embrace the beauty of the lyrics and power of hope but not in isolation. 

This psalm is more than a song of praise; it’s a call to action. Our new song can be a cacophony of voice and sound raised to doing right. After all, God’s love is steadfast. Our God has shown us the way with the marvelous gift of grace. Now it’s up to us to write the new song.

Prayer
Lord, hear my prayer that I find my voice to sing the new song. Lord, hear my prayer that we join in a chorus of hope. Lord, hear my prayer for the promise of your kingdom fulfilled. And let heaven and nature sing. Amen.

Written by Kenneth Ohr, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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October 20, 2019 

Today’s Scripture Reading | Luke 18:1–8

Reflection
Luke must have known this parable Jesus told was difficult to understand, because the Gospel writer starts off by telling us what the message is at the very beginning of the passage: we need to pray and not lose heart. I’ll admit that even though Luke provides the interpretation, I find this passage frustrating. It brings up a lot of questions for me, like, Why do we need to keep praying for the same thing over and over? Is God testing us? Is God trying to teach us something? Especially in this example of praying for justice—which could be a matter of life or death for the widow—it seems cruel for Jesus to tell us to just keep asking.

And I can’t help but think of people who have prayed for years for reconciliation with a family member, people who have prayed for decades for deliverance from a chronic illness, families who have prayed for generations for peace in the Middle East. How much praying is enough?

Luke would probably tell me that’s the wrong question to ask. It’s not about when it’s enough. And maybe it’s not even about the answer. Maybe it’s about the process. Maybe our continued prayers for the same thing over and over is an expression of our faith, a form of worship, a way to acknowledge our relationship with God, and a way to show that we believe in God’s almighty power. When it comes down to it, it’s about faith. And the beautiful, although sometimes frustrating, thing about faith is that by definition it is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

Prayer
Lord, strengthen my faith so that I can use prayer as a time to build relationship with you. Help me to appreciate the process rather than just focusing on the answer. Amen.

Written by Nicole Spirgen, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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October 21, 2019 

Today’s Scripture Reading | Psalm 119:97–104

Reflection
Whenever I hear of those who delight in laws or rules, my mind conjures up images of friends who are game aficionados, capable of arguing endlessly and joyfully over the finer points of baseball, role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, or board games like Monopoly. We tend to think the only people who could ever love rules and regulations are those who revel in minutiae. So for many of us the psalmist’s delight in the reading of law seems so anathema to us.

But Torah, often referred to as laws and precepts in biblical translations, is more than regulations. The Torah threads law into stories. Together they succeed in describing the relationship between God, all peoples, and a particular people. There are mighty acts of redemption and triumph. There are crushing defeats, bitter betrayals, heartache, and wonders. The stories of the Torah give emotional weight to commandments that ask us to love our neighbor, honor the Sabbath, and welcome the stranger, for each of these rules relates to important experiences in the life of a covenantal people.

So like honey from the rock, there is sweetness to procure from even the seemingly rote pages of law, statutes, and commandments. The psalmist knows it. And if we look at the whole Torah, and the fullness of the Hebrew scriptures, we can taste it too.

Prayer
Holy God, shaper of words and giver of wisdom, we thank you for your sacred story, the drama unfolded that turned into law. Help us to receive these life-giving words, listening for how your Spirit calls us to embody them. Amen.

Written by Joseph L. Morrow, Minister for Evangelism

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October 22, 2019 

Today’s Scripture Reading | Genesis 32:22–31

Reflection
The struggle is real. Is the struggle with God? With an angel? With some other mysterious entity? The story is not clear. But the story is clear on one thing: the struggle is real.

Jacob has been struggling since birth, probably before. Clutching his twin’s heel at delivery, scheming to steal the birthright, working overtime to win the bride of his youth, Jacob’s entire existence is a struggle in which he plays dirty just as often as he is mistreated.

So now, on the eve of a reunion with his brother, the person with whom he has struggled the most, Jacob wrestles through the night with God-knows-who (or what). He doesn’t lose, but he doesn’t win either. He endures. He escapes with his life, but also with a limp and a new name.

It is my favorite thing about the Bible that characters like Jacob are related so unambiguously ambiguously in their character. For who other than a lying schemer and a below-the-belt punching rug rat could persevere as Jacob has done? And what kind of model is he to emulate? His vices are his virtues. They pursue him and they save him all at once. Maybe we aren’t meant to imitate him, though. Maybe we’re meant to admit and glory in the ways we simply are Jacob, Israel.

The struggle is not something separate from faith. The promise embodied in Jacob (and Rachel and Isaac and Rebekah and Abraham and Sarah) is that God is in the struggle with us, even when the struggle is with God.

Prayer
God of the blessing and the struggle, stay with us through the dark of night, that we may greet the morning still intact and still with you. Amen.

Written by Rocky Supinger, Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry

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October 23, 2019 

Today’s Scripture Reading | Psalm 84:1–7     

Reflection
“How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!” This psalm gives voice for the people’s love of Jerusalem as the divine dwelling place. Having visited Jerusalem, I agree that it is a beautiful place. But when I think about where I most strongly sense God’s presence, or dwelling, it is not in any city. Sacred places for me are found most often when I am walking along a narrow dirt path through a forest, gazing at a colorful sunset that fills the whole horizon, sitting quietly near a babbling brook, breathing pure air alongside the ocean, or looking with awe upon a magnificent mountain. God is present to me especially in nature.

In 2009, the phrase “nature-deficit disorder” was coined to describe the human costs of alienation from the natural world. Human beings in our nation, especially children, are spending less time outdoors, which can result in a wide range of behavioral problems. Doctors are prescribing that we spend at least fifteen minutes each day, or two hours each week, in nature. Studies show that even having a plant in one’s home, or being able to see a tree through one’s window, helps renew us. I have recently been feeling the accumulated effect of more than eleven years of living in a high-rise building on the thirty-second floor, surrounded by other high-rise buildings and lots of concrete, with neither tree nor grass outside our windows. My soul yearns to spend more time in nature. When I do, my spirit is fed. “Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.”

Prayer
Sustaining God, help me regularly carve out time to be with you in sacred places, that I may be strengthened and renewed by your Spirit. Amen.

Written by Victoria G. Curtiss, Associate Pastor for Mission

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October 24, 2019 

Today’s Scripture Reading | 2 Timothy 4:6–8, 16–18

Reflection
I am in awe of the confidence and the courage Paul demonstrates in this passage, in this letter to his “mentee” Timothy. He speaks clearly of a continual sense of God’s sustaining presence and power in his life. He acknowledges the way others let him down in his time of need, and yet he does not give into any anger or resentment about it. Rather, he prays for God to forgive them and to overlook it. He must have been so filled up by the power of God that he had no room left for regret or for cynicism.

In this passage, Paul reminds me of many of the Presbyterian pastors for whom I have been honored to sit at their bedsides in their last days of earthly life. Often, when I would ask them if they were scared or if there were things they needed to say, they would shake their heads no. “No, Shannon,” many of them would respond. They would then say things like, “I feel like I did my best. I am not scared. I am ready.” And indeed, they often were. Most of them had loved well, and they had been loved well. They, like Paul, had a sense of completeness. They also carried a deep trust that death would not have the final word on them. They, like Paul, were so full of the presence of God that they had no room for fear or regret. They, like Paul, exuded peace. I hope Timothy learned as much from his mentor, Paul, as I did from all of those faithful ones.

Prayer
Holder of my life, increase in me a sense of your presence this day. Fill me up with your power and your peace, like you filled up Paul. May I, too, learn how to live in a way that pours out your mercy for others the way you continually pour out your mercy for me. Amen.

Written by Shannon J. Kershner, Pastor

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October 25, 2019 

Today’s Scripture Reading | Jeremiah 31:27–34

Reflection
Why would anyone eat sour grapes? Sour grapes are some really awful stuff. Don’t ask me how I know this (I’ve eaten some).

Why wouldn’t anyone just let the grapes ripen? Why would anyone be in that much of a hurry to eat grapes? Are they afraid that if they wait someone else might get the grapes? Are they thinking, “Hey, better sour grapes than no grapes at all”? (Again, this is not true. Sour grapes are worse than anything.)

But what if you could eat the sour grapes and someone else would get the awful taste in their mouth?

Mmmm. Gimme the grapes. Consequences, shmonsequences.

And no grapes ever ripen. The hungers of the present starve the future. Those with power, who are insulated from consequence, will pluck up and tear down, overthrow and destroy to satisfy their immediate desires. They will rip everything up to create short-term shareholder value.

The hungers of the present starve the future. Can families save for college when food and clothing are hard enough to come by? Can the sick save for the future when their illness needs treatment now?

Faith lives in the future. It’s all about things being better in the future. It’s about planting and building, not ripping up and tearing down. It’s about letting the grapes ripen, making sure the outcomes in the future are sweet. If someone comes along later and they benefit from your work, good.

The law of God, the one that God wants written on our hearts, is not a set of rules. It is a law of spirit, of regard, of care for others as if they were us—not as if they were like us, but as if they were us. It’s the radical empathy that enables someone to build a building they won’t live in and plant the tree in whose shade they won’t sit. It’s the love that enables the labors of the present to feed the future.

Prayer
Dear Lord, remind us to love not only those we see in front of us, but also those who come after whom we will not see. Make us good stewards out of love. Amen.

Written by Rob Koon, Coordinator of Fine Arts

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October 26, 2019 

Today’s Scripture Reading | Psalm 65

Reflection
Do you ever wonder how the psalms came about? Was the psalmist a court poet who wrote the lyrics for songs sung at worship? Or was he, like many of us, a poet wannabe who jotted snips and snaps of life experience and then compiled them into longer pieces? Or was he King David, with a scribe at the ready to take down the pearls from his lips? We don’t know how they came to be. But what is quite clear to me is that this psalm reaches for the music of the spheres. It is as if the psalmist cannot contain the wonder and majesty of nature. He stands on the rim of the eternal.

In my own life there have been times when the light of the Creator has shown so exquisitely that the moment seized me and I found myself standing on such a rim. One of those moments was when I was four years old. I remember sitting with my dad on a hot summer night on our porch in Iowa. The stars were shimmering in the sky. I remember looking up and suddenly they shone with a radiance that I could not take in. I said to my dad something like, “Look, Daddy, the sky is on fire.” He did not see what I was seeing. But at that moment the thought came to me as clearly as if it happened last night, “How could anyone not believe in God?” I held that big thought in my little heart, and it has held me through many rough patches and riotous awakenings.

In looking into the expanse of the heavens or into the eyes of a newborn child or stumbling across a flourishing garden’ we resemble the psalmist. We won’t let the light dim or the shrinking heart diminish what simply is so vast, so shimmering that we can’t help but sing it this day!

Prayer
Great and wondrous God, give us a psalm to sing this day, a “joyful, joyful we adore thee” song. And even more, sing through us in every encounter with our kin, friends, creation, colleagues. For you, O Holy One, have flung the stars and held the child’s eye. Thank you. Amen.

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

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October 27, 2019 

Today’s Scripture Reading | Luke 18:9–14

Reflection
As I reread this passage, I reflected on all the times in which I too was just as guilty as the Pharisee. Guilty of believing myself to be more compassionate, more knowledgeable, or even more humble than those around me. And by believing this, it made me feel in some way better about myself.

But as we read this passage in Luke, we are reminded that it is not our place to make those judgments of others. That judgment lies with God alone, for only God truly knows what lies in each individual’s past and heart.

So let us all be humbled by this reading in Luke and be reminded of the true meaning of God and Christ, not to judge others but rather to embrace them.

Prayer
God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Forgive me for all the times in which I have wrongly judged those around me, when it was never my place to do so. Help me to be stronger in your will and more compassionate to those around me. In your name I pray. Amen.

Written by Stephanie Jenks, Member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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October 28, 2019 

Today’s Scripture Reading | Matthew 12:43–50

Reflection
As Jesus was preaching to the crowds, his mother, Mary, and his brothers were standing nearby wanting to speak with him; perhaps they were concerned about what he was saying or how long he had been talking. Maybe they just wanted to ask Jesus to bring a loaf of bread home that night for dinner, or perhaps they were concerned for the safety of Jesus in the midst of such a crowd. Whatever it was they wanted to ask him, it is reassuring to know that Jesus had a family that was with him, that cared about him. We know that Jesus loved and cared for his family also, yet in that moment he looked at the crowd and said to them, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

We all need to be family for each other. Each of us needs someone to care for, and we need someone to care for us. In countless small encounters we need each other to get through each day, but even in those small encounters we can make a difference in another person’s life. And in those encounters, small and large, we can experience the transcending love of God, the God who loves each of us as God’s own children. When we become the hands of God, doing the work of spreading God’s kingdom, we are doing God’s will and become each other’s brother, sister, mother, or father. In that moment of giving we are also blessed with nourishment and care beyond our knowing. As St. Francis of Assisi said, “It is in giving that we receive, loving that we are loved.”

Prayer
O God, help me love others as you have loved me. Amen.

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

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October 29, 2019 

Today’s Scripture Reading | Joel 2:23–32

Reflection
Although scholars have found it difficult to date the book of Joel due to its lack of connection to particular historical events, this lack of specificity helps lend the prophet’s words a timeless quality. After prophesying of judgment earlier in the book, Joel shares verses of comfort and promise in our verses today—referring to a coming abundance and a future day in which God’s spirit would be poured out on all humanity (a verse quoted by Peter in Acts 2 after the Pentecost event!). Even more comforting is that the hope that Joel refers to is imminent; this is not a case of a prophet sharing a message that God will intervene many years from now, but one in which God is actively intervening in the present.

All of us have experienced periods in our lives like Joel describes in the trajectory of his book: lean years and abundant years, times where it felt like we were out of control and times when it felt like things were finally going our way, periods of gloom and periods of hope. In many ways, this matches Ecclesiastes 3’s famous rumination: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Sometimes while we are in the midst of those heavy, painful times in our lives, we feel as though we’ll never escape it—that our grief, our loss, our sorrow will come to define us. Perhaps as you’re reading this, you feel as though you’re in such a place right now. To all of us, though, Joel reminds us that God’s abundant love is still all of our futures—even if we’re in a place right now when we don’t feel its presence.

Prayer
God of all the seasons in our lives, remind me that you are there with me no matter what. When I am struggling, remind me that you are there supporting me. When I am feeling blessed, remind me to give thanks to you as I seek to be a blessing to others. Amen.

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

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October 30, 2019 

Today’s Scripture Reading | Jeremiah 14:7–10, 19–22

Reflection
Have you ever wronged a person and known it? And as a result, experienced their distancing from you? It is not a good experience. You just desperately want the other person to come by your side, to take you by the arm, and to say, "It’s okay. I forgive you. I’m here, by your side."

It seems that the people of Judah—speaking through Jeremiah’s voice—were clamoring to know that God had not abandoned them forever, even though they had wronged God. They wanted to know that everything was okay, that God would still be on their side. Always and forever.

The words of God, spoken through the voice of Jeremiah, were harsh words. Jeremiah was a pretty harsh but also honest prophet and he called a sin a sin. The people had wandered far from God, and what finally got their attention was a drought. And because they viewed God as a God who pronounced various disasters or misfortunes as punishments for bad behavior, they started clamoring to be forgiven, hoping that if they were forgiven, rain would come and all would be right with their world again. God would be at their side.

We no longer believe that God hands out punishments of natural disasters for our individual or collective bad behavior. But there are certainly natural consequences for our wayward behavior: in the large scope of things, climate change; in our individual lives, broken relationships and distancing. It’s all very uncomfortable and we clamor. “Please tell us or please tell me it’s all okay.” Maybe a better clamoring would be, “God, please show us how to turn our lives toward you and then give us the courage to take those corrective steps. Instead of clamoring that you come by our side, help us come by your side.”

Prayer
God, help me follow the course you have set for me, to seek your will as I make the decisions of my life. When I fall far away from you, help me bear the burden of my sin, and take steps to get back on the path you have set for me, and help me to remember always that you welcome me back on that path with open arms. Amen.

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

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October 31, 2019 

Today’s Scripture Reading | Matthew 13:18–23

Reflection
I vividly remember the first time I heard this parable. I was in my childhood Sunday School class. We had been promised that if we kept our hands clasped in front of us and our feet on the floor during the whole story, we would be rewarded with a Dixie cup of water and a graham cracker. I was not going to miss out on that treat!

As I listened to the parable of the sower, I wondered at what point in my life someone would tap me on the shoulder and tell me if I were destined to be rocky, thorny, or good soil. I wanted to be the type of person who had deep roots and produced good fruits. But what if I could never be more than a rocky patch? Was I predestined to grow thorns? Could I change my soil type? This all seemed much harder than clasped hands and feet on the floor.

In Jesus’ parables, there was always a twist that would have confounded his ancient followers. In an agrarian culture, seed was a highly valuable resource. No farmer with any sense would toss seed into rocky or thorny areas. Seed would only be distributed in areas with a high probability of successfully growing crops.

Isn’t that like God? Throwing around valuable resources like grace, mercy, and forgiveness to all areas whether or not it seems probable that good fruit will be produced. Maybe this parable is about God’s generosity rather than my ability to change my soil type. Maybe there are seasons of life when I am not the ideal growing environment, but God keeps on tossing seed my way.

Prayer
God of reckless abundance, continue to plant your word in my life. Thank you for generously sowing the seeds of your good news in all places and at all times. When I feel like I’m a thorny patch or when things are a little rocky, help me to remember that you never give up and that it is your love that produces good fruit. Amen.

Written by Andrea Denney, Director of Operational Ministries

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