The back of the ambulance was bumpier than I imagined it would be, and the textured metal walls and small window felt safer than I thought they would. The back of my neck ached, but I still kept craning it around to try to see my vital signs and make sure my oxygen levels weren’t dropping. The EMT sitting next to me repeated that if I found myself suddenly unable to breathe he could stick the medical equivalent of a bike pump into my chest and suck out the excess air currently causing my lung to collapse. I was not reassured. In the moment, the whole situation felt like nothing less than total apocalypse.
A few months later I went back to the doctor's office to have them stick a tube down my throat and dig out samples from inside my lungs. That operation revealed several long-term infections. As of yet, we’ve had no success controlling them.
A few weeks ago, I went in for a routine checkup and discovered that the infections had upped their game and increased their damage to my lungs. I remember sitting in a chair next to the counter in the check-up room and watching my doctor—the urgency in his voice so strong I could almost see it—call my other doctor to discuss how quickly they could get me into treatment. I drove away from that appointment desperate for a miracle. But I just sat in front of a stop sign trying to turn left.
It’s been almost a year, and there’s no miracle yet.
Where is God’s care?
The Bible is full of people who walk into the life of Jesus or a prophet or an apostle and have a word spoken over them or a hand laid on them and suddenly are well. It’s such an easy fix that bypasses the weekly trudge to the doctor’s office and the vials and vials of blood drawn at LabCorp and wrestling with the pharmacy to get prescriptions lined up and delivered on time. I know suffering and endurance builds character but it’s hard to care about character when you just want to live without worrying about your lungs collapsing.
The thought that keeps creeping back in, no matter how much I try to ignore it and act like I’m a better Christian, is this: where is the care God promises to give? Where is the hope and serene peace that, apparently, is available for the asking?
And every time I ask that question, I can’t help but think of Ruth and Naomi and wonder if they asked the same question. I imagine they did. The first chapter of Ruth condenses a horrible tragedy into a few verses. A well-to-do, high-status family exiles themselves from Israel into Moab to escape a famine. Before they can return, the husband and sons die leaving Naomi and her daughters-in-law alone. Naomi’s life, at this point, is over. Her daughters-in-law have a chance, though. They’re still young enough to get remarried and regain some security and safety in the patriarchal world of the Ancient Near East.
And yet, Ruth decides to give up any hope for the future and stay with Naomi. While Orpah, her sister-in-law, leaves, Ruth remains and promises to never leave Naomi. Yet even Ruth has to condition her love and presence. She says, in essence, “I’ll love you until I die.” She knows that in the end, death will take her from Naomi.
And so they travel back to Bethlehem, with no status or wealth, and facing an uncertain and painful future. Surely they asked, “Where is the care?”
They get an obvious answer a few chapters later. But in that moment there’s no miracle on the horizon or theophany to reassure their broken hearts. There’s just a lot of pain and hurt. And yet, the author gives us something surprising at the end of chapter one: “And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.”
At this point in my story I’m right where Naomi and Ruth were on their way back home. The doctors have extended any potential treatment time and I’m looking at one or two years of intensive therapy to counter the infections. No one knows how the treatment may affect me, and for all I know the next couple years will be Masterclasses in the doctor’s office-LabCorp-pharmacy trudge.
The hardest thing for me to learn, I think, is what Ruth tells us there at the beginning. Naomi and Ruth wonder where the care is and all they get is a barley harvest. But a barley harvest is so much more. It’s not just a seasonal rhythm. In Ancient Israel, it reminded the people of God’s faithfulness. A bad harvest could severely threaten the economy, livelihoods, and well-being of a community. To them, a harvest was a message from God: “I’m still faithful, I still love you, and I will always care for you.”
That’s the message surrounding Naomi and Ruth. They want a miracle but God wants them to see golden fields and hard-working farmers. I want to meet a prophet who can snap his fingers and send me away healthy, but I think God may want me to simply look outside and see the sun come up and split the leaves in the morning. Maybe the prophets and healers I’m actually meeting are not capable of miraculous change but rather of making my check-in to the doctor’s office easy, or letting me off work early.
I’m not dealing with an enormous tragedy, and chances are I’ll look back in ten years and be grateful for the things this struggle brings about. But that doesn’t invalidate the hurt, and it doesn’t make the glimmer of hope given to Naomi any less applicable to me. And the glimmer I see is this: that the world is throbbing with hope and love, and that even the most tragic circumstances are still surrounded by divine care.
Seeing God as Slick
Naomi walks back into Israel very different but no less loved by God than when she left. And God tells her so by bringing in a harvest. Maybe he tells me in a surprise phone call from a friend, or a hilarious episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, or a nurse that remembers my name. And maybe these are just as much miracles as a man snapping his fingers and sending me away well.
It’s not just Ruth who learns this, and I’m not the only one yet to learn it. Several thousand years after Ruth, Alden Bell wrote a bizarre novel called The Reapers Are the Angels. It’s a Southern Gothic but with zombies. I had no idea what to expect when I cracked it open a few weeks ago, but Bell arrested me right away. “God is a slick God,” he declares in the opening line. “Temple knows. She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe.”
In the novel Temple wanders this wasteland attempting to survive. The world around her is brutal. She’s brutal. And yet Temple never wonders where love and hope have gone, because she sees it everywhere. At the beginning of the book she stands in the ocean and sees a bright moon burn down on the sea around her with electric fish lighting up the water surrounding her feet. She may not make it out of a horrific situation, she may lose everyone she loves, but she knows this: “that whatever hell the world went to, and whatever evil she’s perpetrated her own self, and whatever series of cursed misfortunes brought her down here to this island to be harbored away from the order of mankind, well, all those things are what put her there that night to stand amid the Daylight Moon and the Miracle of the Fish—which she wouldn’t of got to see otherwise.”
It’s not that somehow the fish were worth the pain, it’s that the fish tell Temple that whatever hell comes there is still a God, and he still loves her, and the hope he’s laced into the fabric of reality is not easily undone. “See,” Temple says, “God is a slick god.”
Cover image by Cezanne Ali.
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