Background Scripture: Psalm 23:1-6
Quotes of the Week:
Safety consists not in the absence of danger but in the presence of God
This lesson is based on one of the most familiar passages to believers and many non believers alike. It is the 23rd Psalm. You have likely heard it read during times of grief and death, such as at a funeral. It does talk about the presence of God as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but it also has a lot more to say about life.
As we go through our lives, we will face all kinds of crises and difficulties. We see people handle these times in various manners. It is during these times that what is inside of us most often shows up externally. Certainly, we all have some level of emotion in the midst of crises, and that emotion can at times be extreme. However, some people will have a desire to lash out, as in revolt, perhaps thinking that will help their situation. As we write this lesson, there is unrest in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere around the nation, following the published results of the now infamous Grand Jury trial. Most have been many peaceful protests, but much of the media has focused on the violent acts, harming people, looted businesses and set others on fire, as well as communities that are struggling to find peace. Surely there are some believers that have legitimately protested, but hopefully, believers aren't in the midst of rioting, burning and looting. In our own crises, we may find varying reactions, and at times, they are as uncalled for as in the destruction of property in the Ferguson situation.
There are some people that will do almost anything to avoid crises in life. We see parents who try and protect their kids from any perceived risk or any uncomfortable situation, believing they can engineer that out of their lives. We would like to think that if we did everything right, we'd never have issues. You can be the best driver in the world, but that doesn't mean you will never have an accident. You can't control the road conditions, the weather or the person behind the wheel of other cars on the road. You can eat the right types of food (avoiding anything that some 'expert' says is bad for you) and still get sick. You can get the right amount of exercise, yet still end up with diseases that impact you physically. You may be the most conscientious employee and you can still lose your job. Even when things are okay for you, you cannot keep other loved ones from dealing with illnesses, or even passing on. Unfortunately, there are additional crises that we create by our actions, as well as crises that we maintain due to not getting past the past (ours or others). Regardless of how we get there, we all will eventually have to deal with uncomfortable, very stressful situations that will put us to the test.
When you are in those situations, where have you looked for comfort? There are many who turn to other people in their times of difficulties. Hopefully, we all have others to whom we can turn when we are experiencing difficulties, as well as to share successes and pleasant experiences. Our comfort may come from a parent, a sibling, a close friend or someone else. We are blessed to have these people in our lives, but what happens if the source of your comfort is gone? We might like to think that a friend or a parent will always be there, but due to many reasons, they may move away from you or pass on. It is difficult to find a shoulder to cry on via Skype or Facetime, and it is impossible to even hear soothing words of comfort from loved ones who have passed on from this world. In fact, one point of your crisis in life may very well be the loss of your source of comfort - where then will you turn?
Many of us were blessed to grow up in families where Christ was put first. We may have learned early on to put our trust in Him and when we encountered difficulties, we have felt His peace. This certainly doesn't mean that any family has it altogether in all ways, but one can learn to rely upon Christ for comfort and peace. Perhaps you can relate to an upbringing such as this, and if this is your situation, you are indeed blessed. As you read this lesson, you can be reminded of the peace that comes from Christ. However, there are others who had very different childhood experiences and the peace of Christ may seem more like a fairy tale to them. They may see the events of our world and believe that since God doesn't care enough to stop the insanity, why would they believe that God cares enough to comfort them personally? Hopefully God will speak to each of us through this passage and help us to see that there is a place that we can turn in the midst of any situation in life.
This passage states that He is MY shepherd. When you think of the many names of God and of His character, isn't it amazing that He can be anything personal to you? While you may or may not agree with any given President, as an American you can say that the President is your president. However, most of us have never met the President and even if you have, he likely doesn't know your name. The Lord is much more powerful than any world leader, yet, you can have a living, vibrant relationship with Him. The Lord doesn't become your shepherd based on an association you have with another person. Your parent or a friend may have a relationship with Christ, and they may pray for your concerns, but they cannot be a proxy for your personal relationship with Him. He can become yours only through a personal, intimate relationship with Him, which only comes through Jesus Christ. Through that relationship, He becomes your shepherd, implying that you and I are as sheep. Sheep need a shepherd in order to stay in the fold and not go over the side of a mountain or away from the flock.
The next phrase is "I shall not want". In the NIV, it states "I lack nothing". We live in a culture where we tend to think we are owed a lot of things. There is a tendency to want what others have and think that we are somehow entitled to many things, because others may have them. This passage does not imply that you will get everything you want, but it does say that the Lord will provide everything we need. There are many people that are dealing with financial struggles at this time. They may think that somehow God has dropped the ball on meeting their needs. In many situations, we have personally dropped the ball on our end, by wasting our resources or by putting ourselves into debt, with an entitlement mentality assuming that someone else will take care of all of our finances.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. Where have you seen green pastures? I grew up in Kentucky and there are many places where green, rolling hills are prevalent. When you are in a suburban environment, green pastures may seem boring, but there is a peacefulness that can be found in those pastures that cannot be found in the midst of the hustle and bustle of our world. Sometimes, God will allow situations in life that makes us slow down and see the beauty of His creation. They may not be green pastures, but have you ever gotten away from the lights of a city and looked up in the sky on a cloudless night, seeing the expanse of the sky and the stars that are so far away? In those times, we can sense the peace of God, as well as the almighty power of the One who put things into motion.
He leadeth me beside the still waters. Most of us have seen creeks, streams, oceans and other bodies of water. Have you ever been next to a lake that is calm and serene; one in which you can see the clear reflection of the other side? While there is beauty that can be found in a rushing river, tumbling over rocks and down falls, a still body of water is much more serene and comforting for many people. When we are looking for comfort, we often try and find a way to go to our 'quiet' place, but if it is devoid of the presence of God, it is simply a quiet place. It is in the presence of our Shepherd that we find comfort. There is a sense of security in His presence, and when we are quiet, we can often hear the still, small voice of God. Sometimes, we are looking to hear from God when our lives are going haywire and in the midst of a busy lifestyle, but it is very difficult to hear God in our own busy-ness. He leads besides still waters and brings us peace and joy.
The passage tells us that He restores our soul and leads us in the paths of righteousness. We are all in need of restoration, as we grow weary in life. We often find ourselves living in the past, replaying our own failures or the failures of others. We have all been contaminated by the world in one way or another - if not by our actions, certainly by our thoughts and attitudes. When we are restored, our focus is back on the Lord, away from the many distractions that we face. Then, we are able to walk in the paths of righteousness, defined by the Lord. Our society tends to want to replace the 'right' ways apart from standards that have been defined by the Lord. However, His path of righteousness is placed before us and He enables us to walk in those paths.
We realize that our lives are not singly about comfort or peril, but our lives are full of both of these qualities. In the life of a sheep, the shepherd's presence provided comfort. The rod was a powerful weapon used by shepherds to defend the flock from would be predators. The staff was used by the shepherd to support and assist the sheep.
If would could choose, we would all choose a life of no distress. However, we know that we will not have that and we also can look back and see that God has most often spoken to us most clearly in the midst of difficult situations. Many have heard of the poem 'Footprints in the Sand', in which one set of prints is indicative of when we are carried by our Lord. We will have fear in our lives, but when we have the presence of our Lord with us, we can have comfort and assurance in our fear.
Who of us have not had a picnic that was ruined by minor pests? We will go to extremes to get rid of them by lighting candles, fumigating the area and hoping to avoid them. We would probably go to larger extremes to avoid enemies (but as of this date, lighting candles and fumigating areas doesn't seem to help in this effort). God tells us that we are in the presence of our enemies. Do you think that God is saying that we need to learn to get along with others that we would rather avoid? In our diverse culture, there are people with all types of beliefs and thoughts of how life should be. The previously referenced Ferguson situation has brought much of that to light, and the amount of hate speech from all angles has been appalling. How do you think God would have us, especially as believers, deal with those who believe differently than us? Even if you can point to truth, many will still choose to believe whatever they want to believe.
The passage says that He anoints our heads with oil. Oil can be used to ward off insects, or as an indicator of the blessing and favor of God. As we go through this life, we will have many aggravations. As an example, in traffic, you will come across very inconsiderate drivers that believe they own the road. It is easy for us to become sidetracked and allow these other people to affect our present attitude. We need to remember that even in the midst of all the aggravations that we experience in life, we are still blessed by God.
The experience of most teenagers is that it is difficult for others to convince them of things. For some, this continues far past the teenage years. It can be difficult to convince some people that God will be with them. We know that God's presence and blessings do not necessarily mean good times, good health and prosperity. In fact, we may face many issues in life, knowing that God is with us. If we confuse God's blessing with what we have, we've missed the intent. We need to realize that God has brought us this far and will continue to be with us.
Realize that God has a plan for each of us and that includes you. He desires to speak to each of us in many ways. Life is not just a series of random events. We can live in hopeful expectation of what God will do in difficult situations in our life. This helps us to realize that God gives us what we need to cope, even when we feel we can't go forward on our own.
As you go through this holiday season, be on the lookout for where God is at work in your life. In many different ways, God is at work in each of our lives. Can you see where He is working, both in your life and in the lives of those around you? Will you choose to work with God and align your own situation to be in accordance with what He is doing?