When my friend Anna and I were in college, a girl in our dorm shaved her head completely bald, sparked by some kind of dare or bet. This prompted a game of sorts among the girls in our suite: “What would it take for you to buzz your head?” We’d offer various tantalizing scenarios—a new car, a lifetime supply of dark chocolate, the payoff of all college loans, a cool grand in cash. All of us were pretty willing to sell out, if reluctantly. All except Anna.
Anna is one of the least vain people I know, but she does prize her long hair—not just because it’s one of her trademark physical features, but also because she sees it as a symbol of her femininity. And so, no matter what tempting offers were placed on the table, Anna would never agree to a head shaving, even in the realm of the hypothetical.
Almost a decade ago, Anna married Mike, who was one of three boys in his family. Her mother-in-law, Barb, was happy to have another woman in the family, and she took Anna in as if she were her own daughter. Over the years, Anna and Barb bonded over their mutual love for Mike, as well as a shared faith and a common interest in taking walks and planning holidays together. And then came along three of the true delights of Barb’s life: the grandchildren Anna and Mike have given her.
Last fall Barb retired from her job, and she was looking forward to spending more time on the lake with her husband and playing with her grandkids. Around the holidays she wasn’t feeling well, and she figured it was just a virus. But as the months went on and she still didn’t feel like herself, she finally decided it was time to go to the doctor.
It wasn’t a virus.
“A tumor,” the doctor said. “The size of a cantaloupe.”
And then the word she dreaded but knew was coming: cancer. Stage 3.
* * *
I’ve always loved the little book of Ruth, tucked between books of history and law the Old Testament. As I read the Bible chronologically, this story especially comes as a breath of fresh air, falling as it does in the midst of the hopeless cycles of disobedience, violence, and despair recounted in the book of Judges.
After Ruth’s husband dies, her mother-in-law tells her that she doesn’t have to stick with her, that she should go back to her people and find another husband. But Ruth responds with a striking display of compassion and loyalty:
“Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!”
* * *
When it was time for Barb to go to the doctor, she claimed she’d be “just fine” on her own. But Anna was resolute that she not go alone, and finally Barb allowed Anna to accompany her while she got her chemo treatments. Don’t ask me to leave you. When Barb didn’t care to have visitors after a particularly difficult treatment, it was Anna who insisted on bringing over a chicken casserole. Wherever you go, I will go. And when her hair started falling out in clumps and she decided it was time to shave it off, it was Anna who did the honors.
The word ruth isn’t commonly used in our vernacular, though its opposite (ruthless) is more familiar. According to Webster, ruth is defined as “compassion for the misery of another.”
True ruth, I would contend, is inherently an act of grace. It’s not about what’s in it for me. It’s about extending compassion to someone who’s in pain, someone who most likely can’t pay back this favor. It’s choosing to stick beside someone even at great cost to oneself.
Wherever you go, I will go.
Even if that journey involves a number 4 razor.
Question: Who is your Ruth?
I’ve taken the challenge of reading the Bible chronologically this year and tracing the thread of grace through it. These musings are prompted by my reading. I’d love to have you join me: One Year Bible reading plan.