Psalm 23 (KJV)
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5 Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Dear God, once upon a time there was a man sitting in his barracks room in a foreign land. He was a pilot in the Air Force, and it was a time of war.
He was a good man. A father. A husband. A son. A brother. A soldier. He grew up dry-land cotton farming in a small town where a good chunk of his class in school were cousins. He went to Baptist church every Sunday growing up. One day, when he was about 11, the pastor was doing what Baptist preachers do every Sunday–giving the invitation. His great uncle knocked him on the shoulder and said, “Don’t you think you should go up?” So he did, submitting his life to you, asking for your forgiveness for his failings, and throwing himself into your mercy. Seeds were planted back then–much like the cotton seeds in the field. They grew and developed into character. It’s not like he started pursuing you with everything he had, but the fruit of your Spirit began to grow in him nonetheless. He became a man of love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, kindness, and self control.
As he grew, he wanted to be a pilot. He wanted to serve his country. He wanted to sacrifice. He married and they had a little girl, but the life of a career soldier requires sacrifice, usually unfair and very hard sacrifice, of everyone. And in wartime, you never know where your duty will take you.
Which leads us back to our man, sitting in his barracks, alone. He would gladly admit later to anyone who asked that he was scared. His missions lately had been at night, flying combat over a warzone. While he flew, he could see tracer bullets and anti-aircraft missiles being launched. Chatter from other pilots filled his ears, warning each other of incoming dangers. Air superiority did not mean safe air. He was in danger at every moment.
So he sat there this one afternoon. It was time to get ready to go, but for the first time in his life he was immobilized with fear. It had finally gotten to him. He couldn’t bear the thought of sitting in that cockpit, flying at over 500 mph straight into harm’s way. No, he wouldn’t do it tonight.
“But that’s not the kind of job where you just decide not to go,” he told me. “They don’t take too kindly to that in the Air Force.” If he decided to not go, he didn’t know what it would mean for him, his family, or the ground forces that were depending upon him, his plane, and his mission.
All of a sudden a thought came to him–we’ll assume it was the Holy Spirit. “I have a Bible in my bedside table. I need that right now.” It had been a while since he had read the Bible. He had never read it regularly. But the phrase, “There are no atheists in foxholes,” rang true for him in that moment. Not that he was ever an atheist, and not that there was ever a time when he didn’t love you. But let’s just say it had been a while.
He didn’t know where to start so he took his Bible and just let it fall open. He decided to read whatever came up and look for strength in it. There he found the passage that he had heard at funerals and church services his whole life: Psalm 23. He read it and a peace started to pass over him. He read it again. More peace.
…valley of the shadow of death
…fear no evil
…thou art with me
…thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me
…thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies (his favorite part)
…surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
Buoyed by only this psalm of David, our man was able to get dressed and report to his assignment. He chuckled as he released his bombs that night, thinking about the table prepared for him in the presence of his enemies. Sure, we’d like to think that that’s not what David meant when he wrote those words, but David was a warrior–that’s probably exactly what he meant.
The next day when he woke up, it was time to report again. His Bible, still open to Psalm 23 was sitting there so he read it again. And he read Psalm 23 the next day after that. According to my Uncle Jack, he continued to read (not memorize, but look at the words and read) the 23rd Psalm every day for the rest of his life, just two days shy of his 81st birthday.
Think about that. Every day for the rest of his life. Some days were amazing. The birth of a child, a wedding, an anniversary, business success–he read the 23rd Psalm. There were also tragic days when he woke up facing struggles with children, divorce, the loss of a parent, brother, or other loved one, business failure–the 23rd Psalm was there on those days too. It anchored him to his Shepherd regardless how smooth or turbulent his air.
And now, this morning, as Uncle Jack awakes in a whole new world, he knows what you mean by the table you prepared for him. He has found his mother, lost to him when he was just a small boy. His second mother. His father. His two brothers. His wife. He has also found some of his enemies. It’s likely they are there too–a table prepared for them as well.
Father, I’m happy for Jack. Thank you for what you brought to my life and so many other lives through him. He will be missed, but I’ll see him at the table you’ve prepared for me soon enough.
In Jesus’ name I pray,