You prepare a table before me . . .
When we read this beautiful, famous psalm, most of us think of an actual table. I have always envisioned being seated by Jesus, as He lays a table cloth over an unlikely surface (a large rock, perhaps), in the midst of a lush valley. I watch Him bring forth a cup filled with oil, platters of delectable foods, and a bowl filled with fresh spring water. I imagine the God of the universe dwelling in flesh to serve me. I am humbled and sustained by this image.
Phillip Keller, author of A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, paints a slightly different picture of the table God prepares for us. In sheep country, the high plateaux of the sheep ranges are referred to as “mesas,” or “tables.” A good shepherd goes ahead of his flock to prepare these highlands for his sheep. He rids the table of poisonous weeds that the sheep may ingest; he uses salts and minerals to prepare the paths for His flock. He cleans out brooks and streams so that they flow freely and without debris. He even designates camps ahead of time so that the sheep will have the best bedding places.
Shepherds prepare the way for their sheep. Each one is accounted for, watched over, provided for. I think it is an easy thing to forget this about our Shepherd, especially at Christmas time. We are wanderers at heart, we sheep-like humans. We go ahead of our Shepherd, off his prepared paths. We push at the boundaries and try to get around them. All the while, we fail to understand that each new ground we traverse, each brook we drink from, each limit we overstep, was provided for us. Each provision reveals His love for us.
Years ago, I spent a Christmas out of God’s reach. I woke up alone in an apartment where my only belongings lay in a duffle bag, with strangers I had fallen in love with, and stared at a Christmas tree covered in Bud Light cans. There were no presents, no stockings, and no Christmas dinner. I remember eating short bread cookies that one of the strangers’ parents had sent them. All day. As sick as I was–drowning in insanity–I ached for home. I hated my husband, my family, and God, but I longed for a place setting at my mom’s beautiful Christmas table. Just a place to sit, a place where I still belonged, where I was owned by someone who loved me.
At that time, I believed I had ventured further than Love could follow. I believed my sins were unforgivable, that I was destined to wander family-less and afraid through a life filled by my haunted mind’s delusions. One of the strangers looked at me that Christmas night and asked me, “We’re all going to hell, aren’t we?” I paused. I looked up at the moon, almost full in the freezing black sky, clouds wrapped around as if to protect its nakedness. Something tugged inside me, Something in the deep down of my heart. “No. He still loves us,” the Something spoke from my lips, “Even if He’s really far away.”
The Shepherd never stops calling. He never stops looking for us, never stops setting the table before us. And tomorrow, as I set my dining room table for our Arthur Christmas dinner, set the places for each one of our family members age 2 to 65, I will thank my Shepherd for providing a way back for me. I will praise Him because I am still married to the husband of my youth, and my last name is still Arthur. I will praise Him for a family who forgave me, who still loves me. I will pause to feel the ache still deep inside for the two empty places at our family’s Christmas table, and say thank you for Caleb and thank you for Dad. I will say thank you for the way our Shepherd prepared those paths of grief for us to walk, never losing sight of us, never failing to provide.
We will bundle our babies up on Christmas day and travel over the river and through the woods to my parent’s house. We will watch the children open their presents, and snap pictures of their innocent delight. We will sit down at that big, sparkly table and feast. We will feast on the love and the gifts and the forgiveness and the grace from a God who never stops giving.
There is always a place at the table for us. No matter how far away we feel, no matter how much sadness or happiness this Christmas unfolds.
Come home. There is always a place at the table for you.
God bless you all this Christmas!
May you be ignited with the incessant love of our King-come-down.