“Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). Have you ever been overcome with such reverence that you felt the need to take off your shoes? I had a holy ground experience the other day. I am still processing the experience, and I am still working on how to articulate it, so I am inviting you to take this journey with me. It is a holy ground experience that has to do with breath, the Spirit, the holy ruach of God. This is the ruach (usually translated as spirit, wind, or breath) that moved over the waters at the beginning of all things (Genesis 1:2). Before there was light, there was ruach. This is the ruach that gave breath to the first humans (Genesis 2:7), brought life to the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37:7-10), and descended upon the believers at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). This same breath gives life to all living things, this same Spirit enlivens the church for ministry in the world.
Grandma had a strong spirit, and she lived her life as a testament to the unfailing love of God through every season of life. I call her grandma even though technically she is my wife’s grandma. My own grandparents died when I was about 12, and I have known grandma for more than 12 years. In fact, she was the first of my wife’s relatives that I met, even before I met her parents or siblings. I call her grandma.
She has been in hospice care, so none of the family members were surprised when she took a turn for the worse last week. She was in pain as the caregivers were trying to adjust her medication to keep her as comfortable as possible. I sat with her alone for hours during this time, holding her hand and talking with her. As I asked her which Bible passages she would like me to read, she mentioned the psalms. So I read. There were moments of lucidity amidst the struggles her body was having, and in those times were grace-filled moments. She became fully alert at the sound of her granddaughter’s voice over the phone and at the sound of her son’s voice (my father-in-law) when he arrived. I was especially moved when she smiled broadly at the sight of my two boys and even identified my youngest by name. In her last conscious moments, she was surrounded by her family (children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren) and her last words expressed the overwhelming experience as she smiled at my youngest son and said, “Oh, for heaven’s sake!”
In the days that followed, the act of breathing and circulating the oxygenated blood became the body’s sole tasks. Breathe in. Breathe out. The breath of life remained in her. After nearly a century on this earth, her body clung to that ruach, even as she was long prepared for the next life. Ruach: breath, spirit, wind. I was privileged to be there for the last breath. Whether by chance or design, I cannot say. But I can say that it was holy ground. Many of us were gathered around her bedside that night. We were talking to each other and reflecting fondly on the life grandma lived. My father-in-law left to settle the others in for the night and was going to return and spend the night with grandma, who had expressed days earlier that she did not want to be alone. I said I would stay until he returned, and then I also planned to leave for the night.
I brought a book to read, but it soon occurred to me that I was not alone, and it was rude to bury my nose in a book when grandma was just laying there with nothing to do. I recalled that whenever we went over to her house, she attended to our needs. There was always great food and hot tea (served properly). She was a gracious host, and a person really got the sense in her presence that she was not really concerned with all the other things she needed to attend to; rather, you – the one in front of her – were the only one that mattered to her at that moment. I put down my school book and grabbed the Gideon Bible from the drawer. It was clear where to turn: Psalms, her last conscious request to me. I read Psalm 22 and 23. I read Psalm 8. Her breathing changed. Her upper body moved a little, as if she was trying to adjust herself to hear properly. I half expected her to wake up, and I got the sense that she was listening, soaking in the words of promise and expectation. I continued reading. As I noticed her breaths coming farther apart, I turned to Psalm 103, one of my favorites. I continued on to another favorite: Psalm 104, a song of praise to God’s power in all of creation. The Lord gives the breath of life to all living things. “When you take away their breath,” verse 29 says, “they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created and you renew the face of the earth.” Her breaths were more labored now, and getting farther apart. This is when I had the urge to remove my shoes. I began singing “Amazing Grace.” As I transitioned from verse 4 (“He will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures”) to verse 5 (“When we’ve been there 10,000 years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun”), she took her last breath. I just sat there for a while, waiting for the next breath to fill her lungs, but it never came. Her breath, the ruach, had returned to God. She lived her life as a testament to God’s goodness and constant presence in all circumstances, and to her last breath she blessed me with the knowledge that I am in the presence of God.
As I live my life, I hope I can take every breath with the grace that she did, and when it comes time for my breath to return to God, I hope it bears witness to the presence of God in all seasons and circumstances of life. Her last message to me, and my encouragement to you: take every breath as a gift from God and be ever mindful of those grace-filled moments in your life when you are standing on holy ground.