Prayer in mid-air

Originally published in the 2010 anthology “Step by step: learning to trust God”

Shortly after joining the army, I volunteered for military parachute training, and after passing the qualification tests, had a wait of a few weeks before the course started. Although a volunteer, I felt nervous about this undertaking, and decided to study the 91st Psalm, the “Psalm of Safety” that I had learned in Sunday School.

The first verse is, “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.” Now, the way I read that was, I want to “abide under the shadow of the Almighty,” and the precondition for that to happen is that I dwell in “the secret place of the most High.” And to dwell in “the secret place of the most High” is to acknowledge God’s presence and allness, everywhere, all the time, no matter what may seem to be happening around you, and no matter what circumstances you find yourself in.

The Psalm goes on, of course, to describe protection from all sorts of things—the fear of the night, pestilence, disease, and accident—and assures us that He will send his angels to bear us up, “lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.”

After four days of ground school, we started the aircraft jumps. All went well until the fourth jump. We were jumping out of two sides of the aircraft, the usual sort of thing you see in the movies of military parachuting. There were very gusty wind conditions that day—right on the margin of being safe. But the course was running a bit late due to bad weather, so they decided we would jump anyway. I was the last man to go out my side.

As I jumped, a gust of wind hit the aircraft, moved it through the air, and instead of being an aircraft’s width from the guy on the other side of the plane, I was, in fact, about three or four feet from him, and just behind and above him.

Military parachute jumps use a “static line”; there's no ripcord to pull. You just jump, and the parachute opens automatically just after you leave the aircraft. As the parachute of the guy in front of me opened, I went feet-first straight between his rigging lines, and out the other side. My parachute never deployed properly; it was just a bunch of material which slid down his rigging lines to his shoulder, and partially collapsed his parachute.

Now this all happened at 800 feet. The normal descent time for a jump is about 45 seconds. We were not quite in freefall—there was a little bit of material providing some braking effect. But our jump only lasted 15 to 20 seconds.

I looked up and saw the situation, just a tangle of rigging lines and parachute material, and then I looked down. At that stage, there was not a great sensation of falling, other than I saw this khaki vehicle with a big red cross on the top racing across the dropping zone towards us.

I thought, “Uh-oh, they think we’re in trouble.” What occurred to me next was that—and it’s extraordinary to say this, but it goes through your mind at lightning speed—in life, you think you have control of everything. And here I was in a situation for the first time in my life where there was absolutely nothing I could do to help myself.

But I got what I can only describe as a slide show of ideas in my mind. There was no time to think the words. The ideas that I had read about in the 91st Psalm came in quick succession. Click, click, click. Ideas of “dwelling in the secret place of the most High”; the sense of God’s protection; He shall send his angels “to bear thee up lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.”

I may have said out loud, but I certainly was thinking very consciously: “All right, God, it’s up to You, because there’s nothing I can do.” Just a complete giving over the situation to God. This was followed by an incredible sense of well-being,—that “all is well.” But my human mind could not see what God could do about it.

I hit the ground hard, took a bit of a roll, and bounced about ten feet into the air again, and landed in an ungainly sprawl. Before the guys on the ground could get to me, I was on my feet. And the other guy was OK, as well. We both got up and walked away.

The laws of physics that said the human body can only take certain forces are not the laws that govern spiritual reality. God’s law overruled them. The guys on the ground couldn’t believe it. The ambulance crew shook their heads in disbelief. We later worked out that we had hit the ground at close to 70 miles per hour.

But to me, what was significant was that it wasn’t just me who was saved. The other guy was fine as well, and he said to me, “It’s amazing what you can get away with if you do as you’re told.” One of the things we were told to do was, when things go wrong, always take up the correct landing position, which is designed to minimize injury.

And I put that into spiritual terms: If you obey the laws of God, and acknowledge God as your Saviour, as your protector, as the source of your being, it’s amazing what will happen.

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