God as Our Shepherd: Psalm 23
Teaching Strategy: Have learners share times when Psalm 23 was of great comfort to them – and discuss how the words of the psalmist fit their own experience of God’s goodness, mercy, guidance and protection as they have faced challenges in their lives. How does the metaphor of God as our Shepherd found in Psalm 23 (and used by Jesus in John 10:11) express what it means to love and trust in God?
Psalm 23 is one of the most well-known and beloved Bible passages. Many believers know it by heart; it is frequently read and sung in weekly worship, weddings, and funerals. Such knowledge sometimes avoids deep understanding as words can be recited without reflection upon their meaning. Studying Psalm 23 provides an important opportunity to examine its meaning – past and present. The image of a shepherd caring for sheep would have been familiar to David (a shepherd) and many others in ancient Israel, but it is not familiar to people living in industrialized economies in the 21st century. How might the relationship of a shepherd to sheep help us understand God’s relationship to us? How does God guide us? How does God overcome our fears and protect us? What does it mean to trust God to help us get through difficult times?
Consideration of such questions may be made more personal and specific by pairing them with discussion of the ways that learners currently feel in most need of God’s guidance and protection, whether individually or in community with others. What are the challenges they face now that they find most overwhelming? What are their greatest fears?
The links below may be helpful – or point toward other contemporary challenges and resources.
- One of the ways many people experience God’s goodness and find help to face personal challenges is through care provided by others. How does God work through them? One example of a program to facilitate such care is Stephen Ministries, established to “equip congregation members to provide one-to-one Christian care to people who are hurting.”
- Too many churches are struggling to grow, and sometimes just to survive. How might God lead your church through difficult times into the future which God intends? Essays such as 10 Ways to Revive a Dying Church and Grow It or Close It? Is There a Third Option for Struggling Small Churches? provide food for thought.
- One fear among older adults is the fear of Alzheimer’s disease; one challenge many face is caring for a loved one with some form of dementia. How does God shepherd those afflicted and those who care for them? In his article, Remembering the Power of Gospel During Alzheimer’s, Dr. Benjamin T. Mast affirmed, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even Alzheimer’s and all the challenges that it brings.”
- One way that believers experience God’s presence and guidance through challenging times is prayer. Learners may share their own experiences or find inspiration in the stories of others, e.g., numerous essays on the power of prayer found in Guideposts and other devotional literature.
Spring 2016-17 Theme: Love
Unifying Principle: People face challenges that may seem too difficult to endure. Where can they find the support and reassurance to face these challenges? The psalmist promises that God’s love provides what is necessary to confront any difficulties and to live in a fulfilling and intimate relationship with God.
God’s Love Restores: Joel 2:12-32
Teaching Strategy: Explore one or more of the contemporary efforts to restore broken relationships and bring about the reconciliation made possible in Jesus Christ. What is the role of repentance in the process? The role of forgiveness? How might the model of God’s love for God’s people inform and inspire reconciliation in our relationships with one another and with God? What is the role of the church in healing broken relationships – within the church and beyond?
In the 2nd chapter of Joel, the prophet describes the coming of the Day of the Lord, a time of judgment filled with darkness, gloom, fires that devour, earthquakes, heavens that tremble, and profound human anguish. This terrible image is followed by a powerful call to repentance and an astonishing reminder of God’s willingness to forgive. “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” (vs. 12-13). The call to Israel/Judah to “return” and the promise of God’s steadfast love are repeated throughout the Old Testament. They are given new meaning in the familiar words of the New Testament, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17). God has never given up trying to reconcile the world. What might God’s persistence teach us about our own call to seek reconciliation – among ourselves and with God? The following examples of contemporary efforts at reconciliation may facilitate your discussion and/or point you toward other efforts closer to home or more familiar to your participants.
- This edition of Usable Knowledge: Connecting Research to Practice (Harvard School of Education) brings together a variety of resources in One and All: Strategies to Protect Students, Reject Bullying, and Build Communities Where Everyone Thrives
- In an interview with Christianity Today Latasha Morrison, founder of Be The Bridge, describes this ministry and argues that “the Church is the ‘only place equipped to do racial reconciliation well’.”
- The mission of The Centre for Restorative Justice “is to develop and promote restorative justice in criminal justice systems around the world…Restorative justice repairs the harm caused by crime. [T]he results can be transformational.”
- The United Church of Christ national leaders and the Pacific Northwest Conference are inviting the wider church to get involved in Building Bridges: Linking Our Muslim and Christian Communities
Spring 2016-17 Theme: Love
Unifying Principle: The rewards garnered from wholesome relationships may be shattered by unloving and unfaithful actions. How can these relationships be restored to their former glory? John reminds us of a loving, forgiving God who seeks to restore and guarantee eternal life, while Joel recounts the benefits that emanate from a restored relationship with God.
God’s Love is Manifest: John 15:1-17
Teaching Strategy: Use the growth cycle of a vine or plant to explore the metaphor of the vine and the branch as expressions of God’s love and our ability to be fruitful. Ask participants to identify the ways that God shows love to us today (perhaps using a simple illustration of a vine and branches).
Discuss how God’s love for us might inspire or enable us to show love to others in our world, even when we find it most difficult.
Jesus uses the image of a vine and branches to describe the intimate relationship between God’s love for him and the love he shares with his followers. “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” (v. 4). Humans (branches) cannot produce “fruit” (love) without their connection to the vine (Christ). Jesus then describes the interconnection between loving God and being obedient to God: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love” (v. 9-10a). “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (v. 12).
God’s love and the call to love are at the heart of the gospel. In the words of the familiar hymn, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” But what does it mean to love as God loves? How do we show God’s love to others – near and far? In the midst of our troubled world, what are some of the times and places where we find it most difficult to love – to know how to love and to find the power to love? Whether it is close to home in the midst of broken family relationships, in our nation divided by vastly different perspectives and sometimes hostile politics, or in a world struggling to defeat terrorism and care for the refugees who are its victims – how might we show God’s love? How does God’s love for us help us understand and give us the ability to love?
Consider the following or identify the issues (the challenges to love) and resources most salient in your own community.
- Reflections on the question Are Christians Responding to Divorce the Way God Intended?
- New York Times article on Lessons Plans: Talking Across Divides: 10 Ways to Encourage Civil Classroom Conversation.
- The Ecumenical Declaration Protecting Welcome – Restoring Hope signed by representatives of Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican communions in the United States, Church World Service and the National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States, on February 10, 2017.
Spring 2016-17 Theme: Love
Unifying Principle: In our human condition, we search for that which enables us to love and be loved by others. Where do we find the authentic source of this love? The writer of the Gospel says that God is the source of an all encompassing love, which empowers us to love God and one another.
Saving Grace: Ephesians 2:1-10
Teaching Strategy: Show a clip from a movie or online video that might spark conversation about the meaning of grace. What aspects of God’s nature does the entertainment world get right? What “corrections” about the meaning of grace do we know to be true according to Scripture?
There are a surprising number of television shows and big screen movies that depict various attributes of God. Everyone from ardent atheist to devoted saint shares a curiosity about who God is and what God might be like if we were to meet — say on a bus (Joan Osborne). Does God have wings? Depending on the movie, God might be male or female, Black or White. (Oh God, Dogma, Bruce Almighty). Does God speak to us through angels? (Touched By an Angel) Does God rescue us when we call for help? (See Saving Grace. Earl, God’s emissary, is sent to help a seemingly raw and vulgar police officer who cannot forgive God after her brother dies in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.) In C. S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia, God sends Christ in the form of Aslan the lion to die in Edmund’s place. How might our curiosity about who God is lead us into a relationship with the God who loves us and calls us to be His own?
Spring 2016-17 Theme: Love
Unifying Principle: Sometimes those who break social rules or cultural expectations become ostracized from their peer group. Where can those who seek a new path find acceptance? Out of his great love for us, God saved us by grace through faith and will show the immense richness of this grace in kindness to those who are in Christ Jesus.
God’s Preserving Love: John 10:1-15
Teaching Strategy: Compare and contrast the role of Jesus (the Good Shepherd) with church leaders and other leaders. Discuss how much of what Jesus says refers strictly to himself and his unique role, and what applies by extension to church – or other – human leaders today.
In this week’s scripture lesson, Jesus contrasts the characteristics of the good shepherd, the hired hand, and the thief in their relationships to the sheep. Jesus explains, “I am the Good Shepherd,” and describes how he cares for his sheep. “I know my own, and my own know me, just as the Father knows me, and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.” (10:14-15).
Reflect upon the unifying principle (below): What can we learn about the nature of Jesus’ love for us from this passage? About the kind of servant leadership he exemplified? What are the traits of the leader(s) we seek for our churches, our nation, and our world?
- Integrity? Writing for Christianity Today/Christian Bible Studies, Ryan Hamm explores Leading With Integrity: How to Live a Life That Matters.
- Humility? Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, describes The Quiet Power of Humility and reminds us that for Christians, “no one humbled himself more than Jesus.”
- A prophetic voice? Writing for the Sojourners series on Faith in Action, Michael-Ray Matthews asks faith leaders to consider Will You Be Chaplain to the Empire or Prophet of the Resistance?
What are the costs to ourselves and to the church when we give to human leaders and institutions the love and loyalty which belong to Jesus Christ alone?
- In a thought-provoking essay Did We Worship Our Way to Trump? Disciples of Christ pastor Craig Watts challenges us to look at the ways we confuse loyalty to America (including American leaders and values) with worship of God – in “direct contradiction to the declaration of Jesus, ‘No one can serve two masters’” (Matthew 6:24).
Spring 2016-17 Theme: Love
Unifying Principle: Everyone is looking for a leader who will solve all the problems of the world. Where can we find the leader we seek? Jesus, as the Good Shepherd, is the leader who shows and imparts God’s love to those who follow.
The Source of All Love: 1 John 4:7-19
Teaching Strategy: In advance of your meeting time invite participants to select new media, music, or art that speaks to them about the ways God’s love is reflected in their lives and in the lives of others. During your meeting give 2-3 minutes for each person to share his/her selection and say a bit about its meaning for them.
There is so much hate and bitterness being expressed in our social media these days and it is a drain on our well-being and our awareness of God’s love at work in, and through, and among us. Asking participants to share example of where they experience God’s love is a welcome antidote to the negativity rampant in our world. If you’re part of a tradition that observes Lenten practices, then you could tie into this exercise and invite participants to “fast from hateful conversations or posts on social media.” In being more mindful of our hateful words we are reminded of the love to which Christ calls us. As Christ’s disciples we abide in the selfless, active, giving love of God.