Q: I read your column every Sunday in my local Harrisburg Patriot-News. Last week, my adult Sunday School class (conducted on Zoom) asked for a volunteer to take over in April. I decided I would write you and ask if you have ever provided a study guide or written a book on the Psalms that our group could use. I would sincerely appreciate any suggestions you may have for a resource. I am a member of the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Blessings to you. — M from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
A: Thank you, dear M, for your very kind words. I promise your Bible study group to periodically include in my column a study guide for a Psalm. I will include questions that people in your group can engage and use as a basis for their communal spiritual seeking. Let's begin with the first two words of the most famous Psalm, the 23rd. I will use the King James Translation because even after 400 years it is still the most eloquent and inspirational translation. When we have enough of these, we will both have the book you want, and I am honored to write.
Studying the 23rd Psalm, the Lord is my shepherd. (Hebrew: adonai roeh)
The main job of a shepherd is to lead the flock, not corral it, and not tie together individuals, and not drag them forcibly to their destination. The relationship between the flock and the shepherd works because the sheep trust the shepherd, and the shepherd cares for the flock. They trust the shepherd because of past experiences when they were safely led home. They also know that the shepherd cares for them because the shepherd will leave the flock to retrieve one lost sheep.
This is the perfect metaphor for how God leads us. We are given a path of conduct in life by God that will lead us to our maximum human flourishing. We also have memories of how God has saved us in history and redeemed us when we thought we were lost. The Hebrew word for faith (emunah) comes from the root meaning, trust, which is amen. So, when we conclude a prayer we are not actually saying, "This is true." We are really saying, "I trust in what I just said in my prayer." We do not believe in God. We trust in God.
So, let us ask: Do you trust God as your shepherd? What are the best reasons you can think of to trust God? What are the best reasons you can think of not to trust God? My guess is that your life and the lives of those you love are the best reason to trust and thank God. I am also certain that the most common reason you or the members of your study group will come up with to distrust God are the deaths of those you love, particularly if loved ones died early in life or through a terrible twist of fate.
But think about it for a moment. Did God ever promise you a life filled only with blessings and no burdens? Even the best shepherd loses sheep to the wolves. In my experience, people too easily forget to thank God for their blessings and too easily blame God for their burdens. God never promised any of us easy lives. God promised us accompanied lives. Like the sheep facing a hard journey home who know they are accompanied by a good shepherd, we also know that God is with us through the trials and gifts of life.
A story that may help you understand God as our shepherd:
"God, I no longer trust you. I often dreamed a dream of walking with you on a beach. I could not see you, but I knew it was you walking by my side because when I looked back, I saw two sets of footprints in the sand. Then, during this crisis in my life, I dreamed the dream, but I only saw one set of footprints. God, you have abandoned me." Then God said to the suffering dreamer, "You only saw one set of footprints because, during your worst times, I was carrying you."
Trust your Good Shepherd.
Another story: The chief of a First Peoples tribe gathered his grandchildren and said to them, "There are two wolves inside each of you. One is the wolf of anger and one is the wolf of love." One of his grandchildren asked, "Grandfather, which wolf will win?" He answered, "The wolf that will win is the wolf you feed."
Feed the right wolf. Feed God and God will feed you
(MG NOTE: Do you see how long this book will be? We just did one column on two words of one Psalm!)
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