When you see or hear the words, “holy ground,” what comes to mind?
The hard-packed earthen paths that Jesus walked in Palestine?
The ground on Calvary where Roman soldiers jammed the vertical beam of Jesus’ cross?
The church altar where you conducted life-changing business with the Lord?
The pew near the back of the sanctuary where a sermon changed the trajectory of your future, and you yielded when God’s Spirit conveyed a particular call on your life?
The spot in your bedroom where you fell, tears of repentance pooling on the carpet?
The front seat of your car?
Say what?! I don’t get it. How does the seat of a car fit into this discussion?
Allow me to explain.
Scene 1 Spring, 1969: Sophomore Year of College
I borrowed my roommate’s car for a midweek date with Noel, who went to a different school 45 minutes away from my junior college. We had been seeing each other two-three times a month. No doubt I was falling for her, as evidenced by the photo I kept tucked in my shirt pocket. During classes, or while in line at the cafeteria, I’d sneak peeks at the picture, marveling how I had landed a girlfriend that pretty. She also shared my faith in Christ.
But that evening shattered my daydreams. When I entered the lobby of her dorm, she wasn’t dressed to go to dinner, and her face was missing its usual warm smile. She said she couldn’t go on the date, citing too much homework. Her apology appeared strained. (This was long before cell phones, so she had no way of contacting me in advance about her last-minute decision.) I knew she could have taken time for dinner, if she really wanted to be with me. The title of a hit song from 1965 by the Righteous Brothers came to mind. I knew Noel had “lost that loving feeling.”
Perhaps I had missed more subtle warning signals during previous dates, but that evening was the first time the truth smacked me hard: her feelings for me didn’t match my emotional investment in her.
Devastated, I wept all the way back to my campus. It felt as if a shard of glass was slicing its way through my heart. Halfway there, I pulled the car off the road for a while and vented my pain to the Lord. I pleaded with Him to comfort me, to give me perspective, to stabilize me so I could concentrate on the final exams that would start soon.
Did the hurt suddenly evaporate? No, but it waned over the next few weeks. More importantly, I was learning as a young Christian to pour out my heart to God, to give Him my laments, my questions, my confusion–a habit I would sorely need for long-term emotional survival.
It looked like the identical front seat of every other Plymouth of the same model that had rolled off the assembly line in 1966. But that one was special. It became a sacred spot where God met with me.
Scene 2 Spring, 1971: Weeks Before College Graduation and My Wedding to Dolly (Oh, I’m so glad Noel lost interest in me!)
I was almost home for the weekend, on a four-lane bypass near Forest City, North Carolina. About fifty yards away, at a busy intersection, I saw the light turn to green. I knew I could safely keep my speed at forty-five miles per hour. But I had a sudden urge to look to the right. I spotted a car racing downhill toward the intersection. Obviously, the driver had a red light, yet he still had ample distance and time to slow his descent and stop for the light.
Then out of the blue, I heard one of the clearest messages ever spoken to me–except this one was inaudible:
“He won’t stop. He won’t even slow down. He’s going to run the red light!”
There was no logical reason to assume that would occur. Though bewildered, I took my foot off the gas and slowed noticeably. Seconds later, when I was about ten yards from the intersection, the car swooshed under the red light without the driver even adjusting his speed. I figured that if I had not seen that driver and had kept the same speed as before, we would have entered the intersection simultaneously.
The Holy Spirit’s insistent, loud “inside voice” probably prevented a serious car crash. I am cautious, sometimes downright skeptical, when someone tells me that he has heard a direct word from God. Yet I do believe He speaks to us, offering words of comfort, guidance, and warning through strong inner impressions. (Such impressions are not infallible, and they must never contradict the special revelation of Scripture.)
It had happened again. This time through God’s gracious initiative, a car’s front seat became “holy ground” for a divine encounter.
Scene 3 Northern Illinois: Winter, 1981
In addition to full-time seminary studies, I worked full time for a denominational ministry so Dolly could stay home with our two preschool sons. I began having painful flashbacks, vivid scenes from a traumatic childhood experience from twenty years before that kept replaying in my mind. I kept seeing an eleven-year-old boy on a street corner in an out-of-state town, after he had been abandoned by his mom and a man with whom she was having an affair. I kept seeing one scene that occurred after getting back home: my grieving dad, collapsing on the floor in front of me, crying out, “Oh, God, I can’t take it anymore!”
Accompanying the flashbacks was fierce, teeth-grinding anger toward my mother. I began seeing a counselor, and made it a point to pour out my heart to God every time the painful memories surfaced. Once, while driving to classes, tears cascaded down my face to such an extent that driving became unsafe. Even if it meant being late to class, I pulled off the road and began a heartfelt round of crying out to God. I pleaded with Him to heal my memories, to enable me to finally forgive my mother.
The process of healing for this emotional wound was long and arduous. The heartfelt prayers from behind the steering wheel became only one of the means God used to assuage the pain over time. Yet, like ointment repeatedly applied to a flesh wound, gradually healing it, I kept up such prayers to mend my heart.
Once again, the front seat of my car became a sanctuary where I met God.*
Scene 4 Winter, 2003: An 80-mile Drive from Columbia, South Carolina to Florence
That winter I was in the vise-grip of the deepest, longest-lasting episode of depression ever. I know the Lord uses the common graces of medicines and counseling, but at the time, those avenues had not alleviated my symptoms. Nor had my own heartfelt prayers, nor the intercession of my family and friends, had any apparent effect.
As I drove to the teacher-training event I would lead later that Sunday afternoon, I pondered the tenacity of this depressive episode in light of the sovereignty of God. A seismic shift in my perspective occurred, and I began praying differently. I concluded that His sovereignty was either a sterile, meaningless doctrine, or a dynamic reality with profound implications. Through tears, and speaking aloud, I prayed words similar to the following:
“Father, so far You have chosen not to intervene and lift this veil of darkness. But I’ll trust You, anyway. Perhaps You can receive more glory by keeping me fruitful in spite of the depression, rather than by healing me of it. At any rate, I am Your property, and You can do whatever You want with me. You are still good. You know what You are about.
“If You choose not to remove my depression, I accept that. I surrender to Your will. If this vulnerability to despondency always characterizes me, I’ll assume You have a reason. I’ll trust You to sustain me through the painful times, and to keep using me in ministry so I don’t turn too far inward in my focus. What matters is not that others perceive me as weak, but that they see You, on whom I lean, as strong. Oh, Lord, if You don’t remove my depression, please don’t waste my pain!”**
Once more, while sitting behind the wheel of a car, a significant divine encounter occurred.
In Exodus 3, an angel appeared to Moses in a burning bush in the wilderness. Despite the blaze, the bush wasn’t being consumed. As Moses crept closer to the strange phenomenon, God said, “Moses, do not come near here. Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). Then God proceeded to commission Moses to lead His chosen people out of bondage in Egypt.
Whether the initiative is ours or the Lord’s, any place has the potential to become “holy ground,” a burning bush where we encounter God. The prerequisite is a listening frame of mind, and the desperation to pour out our hearts to Him.
The next time you get behind the steering wheel of your car, remember that the car seat is potentially a burning bush where God wants to get your attention.
Except keep your eyes on the road. Consider the option of wearing flame-retardant clothes. And it is okay to keep your shoes on. Otherwise, your feet could get singed.
**A footnote to the time I surrendered to my depression: My 2003 prayer of surrender doesn’t mean I never avail myself of either medical intervention or counseling. Since that day, though I am not currently on a medication, there have been periods of time where I took meds and saw a counselor. I firmly believe that these resources are sometimes means of God’s grace.
My submission to God’s sovereignty over my despondency was an essential step for me, but it doesn’t preclude my striving for emotional stability. I’m still willing to fight for my joy. What it does mean is that I am willing to accept His will and to worship God, even when natural or spiritual resources don’t work. He is trustworthy–no matter what!
*For the complete story of the journey I took in forgiving my mother, see my article “Release from Resentment,” my December 17, 2018 blog entry.