Theology 101

My ALS Diagnosis & the 23rd Psalm

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As many of you know, I was diagnosed with ALS in March of 2020 and given one year to live. Over the next six months, while my wife and I were trying to educate ourselves about this disease, we truly saw God do amazing things. As I look back on it, things weren’t really that bad. I could get around and my life hadn’t really changed much. As I have often said, things were going well right up until the day I died.  

On the morning of October 28, 2020, my wife found me slumped over in my chair unconscious, not breathing with no discernable pulse. She called 911. Our son-in-law was there and began administering CPR. By God’s grace, the EMTs arrived quickly and pulled me back to the land of the living. 

Everything changed. I woke up two weeks later in the hospital with a tracheotomy and on a ventilator. It wasn’t long before I realized that this was not going to be a temporary thing.

The next three months were spent in the hospital before I was allowed to come home. I now spend all my time on the ventilator in bed or in a wheelchair. Over the last year I have lost the use of my legs and most of the dexterity in my hands. Yet, I have never let go of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

To say the last 31 months have been a spiritual and emotional roller-coaster would be an understatement. Through it all, we have clung to His promise, “…we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). This certainly is not the journey we would have chosen. You do not want to be the closing illustration in your Pastor’s Easter Sermon two years in a row (see here and here). But God is faithful, and he has used the love and prayers of his people to sustain us day by day.

Everyone has been amazed how well I am doing. God has had plenty of chances to take me home but I believe I am still here because He has much more work for me to do.

Psalm 23

While l have found much encouragement in God’s word, I’ve particularly found solace in the Psalms. The one Psalm I have clung to from the beginning of this strange adventure is the twenty-third Psalm. There is a reason this is one of the most loved chapters in scripture. In his Treasury of David, Charles Spurgeon described Psalm 23 as “the pearl of Psalms whose soft and pure radiance delights every eye…it may be affirmed that its piety and its poetry are equal, its sweetness and its spirituality are unsurpassed.”

My Shepherd

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

The psalm begins with a confession and a conditional statement. Like the original author, I confess the “Lord is my Shepherd.” Because he is my Shepherd, I lack nothing. The author of the book of Hebrews writes “may…our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will” (Heb. 13:20-21). We are equipped to do the work he has called us to do regardless of the obstacles that may be in our path. 

Equipped for Battle

The next two verses show how he equips us before we enter the battle. Likewise, Jesus was baptized and fasted before he was tempted in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11).

He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.

It is only after we have been equipped that we understand how to walk into the great temptation that awaits each of us.

Encouragement Through the Dark Valley

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Welcome to my world. Like the psalmist, I find myself walking through a terribly dark place. But there are several promising things in this verse that have greatly encouraged me. The word “through” is of utmost importance. This valley is not our final destination. It is not a box canyon with no exit. There is an expectation that we, by God’s grace, will emerge on the other side of this terrible place and step into his glorious light. 

As the prophet Isaiah writes, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined” (Isa 9:2). This terrible place is called the valley of the “shadow” of death. For the believer, death has no power over us, yet the evil one tries to use the “shadow” to bring fear into our hearts and rob us of our faith. 

The Apostle Paul writes, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:55-57).

God’s Saving Presence

In the original Hebrew language, Psalm 23 has 26 words before the phrase “for you are with me” and 26 words after. Using this symmetric bracketing as a literary device is often seen in Hebrew poetry to summarize the most important theme of the poem. As one commentator writes, “God’s saving presence is the focal point of this psalm.” 

This is why I fear no evil as I traverse the valley of the shadow of death, I know that the Great Shepard is with me. His staff guides me, and his rod protects me.

Note the change in this verse. The psalmist has been addressing God in the more impersonal third person. In this verse, he begins to use the more personal second person. You cannot navigate the valley of the shadow of death without a personal relationship with the Great Shepherd. At this point you can no longer speak about God but instead you must speak to God. “For you are with me” goes beyond intellectual assent and plums the depth of the human heart. 

The psalmist writes “for you are with me”—not “I am with you.” God saves us, he calls us, lays his hand on us, and then equips us to do the work for which we are called. We may let go of him, but he will never let go of us, no matter what the circumstances. As the Apostle Paul writes to the Romans:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:38-39)

Hope for the Banquet

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel. As the Great Shepherd leads us out of the darkest valley, we come to a banquet prepared for us that demonstrates the Lord’s grace and abundance. It should be noted that this takes place in the presence of our enemies, in this life, not in the next. This should fill us all with great hope because “you are with me.”

Two Blessings

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

The psalmist ends the twenty-third Psalm with two great blessings. The first is a temporal blessing. “For you are with me,” goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my earthly life. The second blessing is for the life to come and what a blessing it is. “For you are with me” not only in this age but also in the age to come.

Every day as we rise, we need to work as hard as we can to fulfill the call on our lives by doing the work he has equipped us to do, regardless of the circumstances. We work not to prove ourselves, but because of our love for the Great Shepard and our desire to please him. “For you are with me” today, tomorrow, and forever.

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