Deborah and Barak: Judges 4:1-10
Teaching Strategy: Discuss the roles and relationship of Deborah and Barak, how each of them fulfilled God’s call and through them, God delivered the Israelites. Then explore how their story might inform the lives of believers today.
How do Christians discern God’s call in 2017? Who are the wise leaders today speaking for the Lord as Deborah did? What is God calling believers to do? What leads them to doubt themselves as Barak did? How might Deborah’s response to Barak be a model – assuring those who are called that God is present and will provide the resources needed to fulfill their calling? How might the partnership of Deborah and Barak be a model for believers – sharing wisdom, encouragement, and support as they work together?
- The Matthew 25 Pledge says “I pledge to protect and defend vulnerable people in the name of Jesus.” The Matthew 25 Movement is supported by at least 9 national faith-based organizations, and provides toolkits for addressing 3 priority issues: religious liberty, policing, and immigration.
- The Rev. Traci Blackmon, Acting Executive Minister, Justice & Witness Ministries of the UCC, writes Now is the Time for Moral Courage, especially as it relates to health care coverage in the U.S.
- June 2nd is National Gun Violence Awareness Day. The Baptist Peace Fellowship/Bautistas por la Paz website includes this resource What Your Church Can Do About…Gun Violence.
- The Ecumenical Prayer Cycle available through the World Council of Churches makes it possible to “journey in prayer through every region of the world and through every week of the year affirming our solidarity with Christians all over the world, brothers and sisters living in diverse situations, experiencing diverse problems and sharing diverse gifts. Lord, hear our prayer …”
Summer 2016-17 Theme: God’s Urgent Call
Unifying Principle: People called to be leaders may doubt their capabilities. How do leaders deal with their doubts? Barak willingly went into battle after the prophetess Deborah agreed to accompany him.
God’s Pervasive Love: Jonah 4
Teaching Strategy: Explore how Jonah’s anger grew out of the limitations of his perspective. Compare and contrast this story with others in Scripture (such as Luke 15) where someone takes offense at the extent of God’s grace. Discuss why people who have experienced God’s grace sometimes resist the idea that God’s blessing is extended to others whom they do not see as deserving (e.g., the Ninevites or the prodigal son). How can believers come to see those they might have written off as “enemies” the way God sees them?
In Jonah 4 Jonah expresses his anger at God for showing compassion to the Ninevites, saying that he fled to Tarshish in the first place (chapter 1) because he knew that God is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (v.2b). God rejected Jonah’s complaint and used a kind of “living parable” to remind him that God’s redeeming love is not limited, but pervasive.
How might some believers today – like Jonah – lack compassion or try to limit the reach of God’s love? Who are the people from whom they might want to withhold compassion? Who are the people they believe are undeserving or should be kept outside the circle of God’s love? Would evidence of God’s pervasive love make them angry?
- Non-violent drug offenders? Attorney General Sessions recently announced a new directive to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense,” a major reversal of criminal justice reforms enacted under the Obama administration. Democrats – and at least 1 Republic criticize Sessions’ new directive on criminal charges.
- Gay and lesbian Christians? Following 14 months of study the Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas last fall voted to give full acceptance to LGBT members, an action not supported by the Texas Baptists
- Refugees? In a series of articles about the Syrian refugee crisis, World Vision International reported the results of a recent survey showing that While Aleppo and Mosul Burn, American Christians Are Less Likely To Pray for, Help Refugees Than a Year Ago
- On Thursday of each week, a new “world news in prayer” is published on worldinprayer.org. The prayer incorporates the news of the week from around the world with offerings of thanksgiving, confession, and/or petition. Look for places where God’s love is most needed and where God’s love is most evident.
Spring 2016-17 Theme: Love
Unifying Principle: People are displeased and angry when things do not go their way. How can we gain a larger perspective? Jonah discovers the wide breadth of God’s pervasive love.
Teaching Strategy: Discuss repentance, forgiveness and God’s saving power – as they were experienced by the Ninevites and as they might be experienced today. Who or where is Jonah preaching against evil ways of living in our world today? Of what do we most need to repent? What might it look like if we were to repent – as individuals or as communities? In what ways have we experienced God’s forgiveness? How might we experience forgiveness anew – individually and together? How can the power of God’s love enable people to live together in peace and wholeness today?
In Jonah 3 the prophet is again asked to go to preach to the city of Nineveh. This time he heeds God’s call, and announces God’s impending judgment. The people of Nineveh believed and repented. The king himself decreed that, “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands” (v.8b). When God saw that the people had “turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind” (v.10a). God did not inflict the punishment that Jonah had proclaimed.
There is abundant evidence that more than two thousand years after the time of the prophets the world is still broken. At home and around the world people, communities, and nations are alienated from one another and from God. Whether in the form of hatred, violence, war, or destruction of the earth itself, evil ways of living continue. The links below point to just a few examples. Participants can be invited to add their own. Then discuss the questions above. What does the story found in Jonah 3 tell us about repentance, forgiveness, and the power of God’s love to transform our lives today?
- An article in April about violence against women: Domestic Violence: Nearly Three US Women Killed Every Day
- A recent analysis (February) of the deep political divisions in our country: America’s Civic War: How Long Can America Stand Divided?
- A March article about one mayor willing to oppose the violent tactics of the Philippines President: Between Duterte and a Death Squad, A Philippine Mayor Fights Drug-War Violence
- The NCC General Secretary’s April address, a commitment to work with others around the globe “to build societies of peace and justice where religious liberty is honored and where we strive together for the common good”: General Secretary Jim Winkler’s Speech to Cairo Peace Conference
Spring 2016-17 Theme: God Loves Us
Unifying Principle: Communities today are wracked with separation and violence. What can bring people together to live in wholeness and peace? When the people of Nineveh repented, God brought peace and wholeness through divine love.
God’s Love Preserves: Jonah 2
Teaching Strategy: Explore the transition in Jonah 2:6-7 from despair in the face of certain calamity to gratitude for God’s protection and preservation. Relate this dramatic reversal of fortune to similar incidents in Scripture and/or in the personal experience of the participants.
Even when Jonah was in the belly of the fish, God was able to hear his prayer and God rescued him. The prophet had reached his lowest point, but at the last possible moment God lifted him up. Jonah responded with a song of thanksgiving.
Invite volunteers to share connections between their own experience(s) and those of Jonah. When have they felt at their lowest? In what ways have they called out to God? How have they felt God’s presence – or been assured that God heard their prayer(s)? In what ways did they feel protected and/or rescued by God? What changed their cry into a song of thanksgiving? To whom did they give thanks? How would their lives be different if they lived with such gratitude every day? Last but not least, how might they be called to work with God to rescue others in need?
The stories of rescue and/or hope below may help participants to generate their own stories or simply add to their understanding of the richness of the human experience that God has given to all of us.
- Stories of hope from cancer survivors (2016)
- Embedded in the story, A Deadly Addiction: Report Shows Humboldt County’s Overdose Rates Worsening, the personal account of the Eureka Rescue Mission Executive Director Bryan Hall Sr., a former addict sentenced to prison, who described finding “his current calling” as “ultimately the work of God and the help of people around him.” (2017)
- The story of a Sudanese refugee who found safety and a new life in Egypt through the work of Church World Service and its partner, St. Andrew’s Refugee Services What Education Meant to One Refugee Mother (2014)
- Rescue of Refugees at Sea (video, 2017)
- Ebola Patient Dr. Kent Brantly Says “God Saved My Life” (2014)
Spring 2016-17 Theme: Love
Unifying Principle: People experience being rescued from dire circumstances and are thankful. Whom do we thank in these circumstances? Jonah acknowledges with thanksgiving that it is God’s love that protects and offers deliverance.
God’s Sustaining Love: Jonah 1
Teaching Strategy: Compare and contrast the behavior of the sailors and of Jonah in the face of the storm. What is praiseworthy? What is worthy of condemnation? How do these reactions illustrate the ways people respond to crises today?
Jonah “set out to flee … from the presence of the Lord” (vv. 3, 10). He was on a ship to Tarshish when “the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up” (v. 4). In the face of this crisis, the sailors wanted to know whom to blame and how to save themselves. When they had determined that Jonah was the cause of “this calamity,” they asked him what they should do to him so “that the sea may quiet down for us” (v.11). Jonah instructed them to throw him into the sea. They did, but Jonah was saved when “the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah.” Jonah did not succeed in fleeing from the Lord, but instead discovered God’s sustaining love in the midst of the storm.
This biblical story raises many contemporary questions. In what ways do we try to flee from God’s presence? When we face our own crises, do we seek someone to blame? How do we decide? What do we do (or want to do) to those whom we blame? How do we seek to save ourselves? What have we done – or can we do – that is praiseworthy? What have we done – or might we do – that would be worthy of condemnation? How has God saved us? How have we experienced God’s sustaining love in the midst of the storm?
People experience many kinds of crises, acute and chronic – at home, at work, in churches and communities, in nations, and globally. Answering the questions above in relation to specific crises may generate more insightful reflections than thinking about them in a general or “generic” way. Consider examples such as these, or others that are more relevant to participants:
- A Christianity Today essay on ways to respond: Listen More, Speak Less to Help After Tragedies Like the Deadly Texas Church Bus Accident that occurred on March 29, 2017, killing 13 seniors.
- A Chicago Tribune article (January 28, 2017): Report Says Youth Unemployment Chronic, Concentrated and Deeply Rooted .
- Also in January 2017, a Time.com update: Flint’s Water Crisis Still Isn’t Over. Here’s Where Things Stand a Year Later.
- One of many recent articles about the likelihood of imminent famine: Drought and War Heighten Threat of Not Just 1 Famine But 4
Spring 2016-17 Theme: Love
Unifying Principle: When calamity comes, people ask, “Why?” To what extent do people accept that their own bad choices have negative consequences? In Jonah’s case bad choices led to a calamity he was forced to own; however, Jonah discovered that God’s love surrounded him still.
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).