God is Holy
It is week 4 of my sabbatical and I am spending the day at Starved Rock State Park. It is a bit windy and chilly, but it is a good day for retreating. I bundle up, make my way north on I-39, and arrive for breakfast at the Lodge. I sit near the rustic fireplace. Toasty. Comfortable. Content. The waitress introduces herself and I place my order. “Blueberry pancakes, a side order of bacon, and a hot cup of coffee, please.” I journal a little while waiting for my morning manna. I find my thoughts drift nostalgically toward my childhood. I have been coming to Starved Rock since I was a boy. I have, so many times, walked these trails, tossed rocks into the Illinois River, and climbed the path to the peak of the park. I do not have the fresh legs for climbing that I once possessed, but my youthfulness has encountered a sweet exchange with my senior years. I now have a greater appreciation for the beauty that surrounds me. Native American tradition, as some of you know, shrouds Starved Rock. According to the legend of 1770, a war party from the Potawatomi Indians attacked the Peoria Indians. The Peoria could not escape and starved on the peak of the rock above the Illinois River. Thus the name. I am here to stop, shut-up, look, and listen. I have brought with me another “word” from the 10 Commandments. The word on my heart is “holy.”
My sabbatical week centers on the fourth commandment in Exodus 20:8. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” These eight words remind me that God designed and invited His people into a weekly rhythm that honored Him with a built-in rest stop. This one command recalls God’s seven-day creation narrative. There were six days of work, calling the world into existence piece by piece, with one day given for intentional rest. I am not writing this blog to argue with anyone about keeping Saturday as the Sabbath day. Because of the resurrection, all days are now God’s days. Jesus, after all, is my true Sabbath rest. I say all of this, because when God implemented the Sabbath requirement at creation, He was not tired. He was not in need of renewal or refreshment. He was not deplete of energy. He was not short on strength. He simply paused. He perfectly modeled work and rest. As crazy as it sounds to some, God showed restraint by giving Himself a day off.
This one command is a powerful reminder that God, again, is the gold standard in everything. His Sabbath bell chimes once a week and calls us to exit from this “chicken-with-its-head-cut-off-world.” The entire planet will go on without us. Our ongoing formation is secure. Sabbath’s design, regardless of the day of the week, is not a lazy, sleep-in day, but rather a day of declaration. It is a day that links us to the fulcrum of God’s very nature. Behind this Sabbath-keeping command is the absolute holiness of God. Sabbath is holy because God is holy. Israel, I remind you, had endured 400 plus years of backbreaking labor, working 24/7, as slaves in Egypt. God now instructs her to stop and rest once a week. This weekly stoppage centers on God’s absolute perfection. Holiness is the idea that God is distinct or separate from everyone and everything. He alone is morally pure and perfect. Sabbath-keeping, or holiness-remembering, offers us a once a week recovery of our spiritual memory. Sabbath is a re-centering on God’s perfect nature.
I finish my breakfast and go for a long walk. I eventually find a picnic table near the river and I sit there for a while. I watch the current, especially observing the leaves that have fallen into the river. I sing. I listen. I recite Scripture. I work on a recently memorized Psalm. I especially notice one leaf that is floating by. I keep my gaze on that one leaf until it fades from my eyesight. The solitary leaf reminds me of my own life. How did I ever get so far along as to be this close to my 65th birthday? Like that leaf, I find myself caught in an unstoppable current. Some days I intentionally strain against the flow. Some days I simply surrender. The Jesus-following life I live is both a life of seeking and a life of submitting. My spiritual formation requires both. Even as I ponder that one Forrest Gump-like notion, I find my thoughts returning to God’s holiness. His plan is perfect. His plan moves intentionally toward a grand crescendo, because His overarching attribute is one of flawlessness.
Eventually, I make my way back to the Lodge. I intend to journal some and write this blog post. I find a quiet spot, but a loud announcement interrupts my tranquility. “Please welcome Alan Jackson.” Yes, I kid you not. Alan Jackson, the country-western star, is doing a live performance today at the Starved Rock Lodge! I harbor no ill will toward Alan. I like his music, but I have come to this place for silence and solitude, not twang and tawdry tales. I exit the Lodge and head for my truck. I want quiet. I decide to meander down highway 251 south. I am in no hurry. God’s holiness is on my mind. I want to ruminate on Sabbath and God’s perfection.
I stop in El Paso, Illinois. Journal some. Sing some. Listen some. Pray some. I recall that Bishop Fulton Sheen (1895-1979) was born in this little town. Some say he was the first television evangelist to shape American culture. His “Life is Worth Living” TV show was a huge hit from 1951-1957. Even my ultra-conservative, Protestant preacher-father, watched Bishop Sheen’s program! I chuckle at that memory. A Catholic priest, who shared the Gospel of Jesus Christ week after week on black and white TV, captivated my dad! Sheen even won two Emmy’s during that seven-year run. I am recalling something Bishop Sheen once said. “The only argument the world will listen to now is the argument of personal holiness. It has heard all the rest and rejected them.” I have often said it this way. It is hard to refute “Jesus-following authenticity.” I sit on that thought for a while. My holiness is only possible because of God’s holiness. Once again, the Gospel arrives. Our unhurried God, at just the right time, put on flesh, living and loving, dying on a cross, and ultimately rising from the dead, allowing His holiness to blanket our unholiness. I can rest today, so can you, because of God’s beautiful perfection. I arrive home in the late afternoon with the word “holy” still tethered to my heart and now, hopefully, tethered to your heart too. Amen.