…God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses” And he said, “Here I am.” Then (God) said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:4-5)
I am sure that was the last thing Moses expected when he got up that morning! Finally he had found some peace in his life. He had fled Egypt in terror from the wrath of Pharaoh, married into a prominent Midianite family, become a father, and settled down to the good life. Now this! Suddenly, he is addressed by the Living God out of a burning bush and warned that he is standing on holy ground. Then he’s ordered to undertake a sacred and redeeming work for his people. Moses was shaken to his very depths!
Now, I’ve never been confronted by God the way Moses was, although I once saw a bush suddenly burst into flame when we lived in the West. But I have been on holy ground—and I suspect you have too. Sometimes we don’t realize it until later on. One of those occasions for me was when I stood with a tearful husband beside a hospital bed where his wife lay close to death. They had had many happy years together, raised an outstanding son, always active in town and church, and were still incredibly in love with each other.
Then the tide turned. A slight heart condition which had begun to slow her down suddenly grew worse. The doctors discovered a tumor. Fluid began to build up in her lungs and had to be removed painfully by needle. When she took her final turn for the worse she was transferred to the Massachusetts General Hospital, and I followed along. This lady—her name was Regis—was one of the sweetest-natured people I’ve ever known, and I shan’t forget her in that hospital room hooked up to tubes and wires and monitors, and slipping in and out of consciousness. Elwood and I prayed, and held her hand, and talked quietly with her, not certain how much she took in.
But it was holy ground. The sacredness of life and the sense of God’s presence were palpable. And then, out of the silence, came her final words, addressed to me in her soft southern voice: “Take care of my darling.” And soon she slipped away into the arms of her waiting Lord. As Elwood spoke his final goodbyes I knew his and my friendship was meant to deepen and endure, for that was God’s clear summons. Through the years since then we’ve kept in close touch with visits and phone calls. Elwood is 97 now, living near Austin where his son is a professor at the University of Texas.
You know you’re on holy ground when, like Moses, you’re jarred loose from your little world and encountered by the God of love and summoned to action. When, as you look back, have you realized that you were on holy ground? When has God put an opportunity before you, brought a hurting friend across your path, held an uncomfortable mirror up before you? Let me tell you about the earliest holy ground I can remember as a little boy.
We used to vacation out on Long Island, in Bridgehampton—long before it became the fashionable resort it is today. And each summer I looked forward to the Firemen’s Carnival which was held to raise money for the volunteer fire department. The parade always featured the high school band, the fire engines, military veterans in uniform, and of course us kids. But the thing I got the biggest kick out of was the midway at the fair grounds—and especially the games of chance. One evening I decided I was going to beat the system at the roulette table! My scheme was to wait until the wheel had almost stopped and then quickly put my dime down on the right number!
As I was in the process of committing my sin, I suddenly felt a long muscular arm and an enormous hand making its way around my shoulder. To my horror, I found myself looking up into the face of Harold Shanahan. “Shanny,” as we called him, was a big husky Irish Catholic, with a winning smile and a love for people. He ran the gas station my family patronized and was a prominent volunteer in the fire department, from which I was about to steal some money through my scheme. He drew my shameful little body to himself and whispered in my ear, “Doug, you don’t really want to do that, do you?” “No, sir, I guess I don’t,” I mumbled, thoroughly humiliated.
It took big, loving Harold Shanahan to set me straight on the path of honesty toward which my parents had always tried to lead me. And that’s the way it often is on that holy ground where God may deposit us. Sometimes it’s for our sake; sometimes it’s for others. But it’s always for God’s gracious purposes. You know you’re on holy ground when you run into that friend from whom you’ve been feeling an awkward separation. You know you’re on holy ground when you’re hesitant to take an action and a little voice inside you says, Do it!! You know you’re on holy ground at the communion rail when receiving the Body of Christ suddenly reduces you to tears.
It is all of a piece: Moses’ holy encounter at the burning bush, and our own holy encounters in life, lead us into the presence of the Living God and bid us live our lives to God’s glory and the up-building of God’s world.