Today I am pondering the meaning of “close call.” The phrase has surfaced in my mind because of a recent episode in my car when I suddenly found myself driving with a dysfunctional eye. As I tried to see my way through searing pain and a flood of tears, I prayed I would make it home safely, toting my special needs son in the backseat.
Thankfully, we arrived at the house intact, but it was definitely a “close call.” And now I’m asking who, if anyone, was calling me in that moment? And to what, exactly, was I being summoned?
Let me tell my tale.
For the past five years or so, I’ve suffered intermittent flare-ups of a corneal condition which causes the surface of my eye to wrinkle and tear, then fail to heal normally. Each episode is extremely painful and requires several trips to a specialist and a whole array of medications. My struggle with this condition is not only physical but psychological, as I have become increasingly post-traumatically stressed (PTSD) about being ambushed by excruciating eye trouble. When an episode happens, it basically dominates my life for about two weeks—if all goes well and my eye responds to treatment. With this last episode, surgery is becoming a more appealing option, although I know I will likely hurt post-operatively to achieve a more permanent solution to my problem.
The circumstances surrounding this latest episode were especially disheartening. After having to forego a 25th wedding anniversary party because of the pandemic last year, my husband and I decided to arrange a quick getaway to mark our 26th. Just dinner, an overnight stay in a hotel downtown, and breakfast the next morning before returning home.
Because of my nine-year-old son’s autism, such a trip involved an incredible amount of work. First, I had to get a detailed picture schedule together to explain exactly how our time away from him would unfold. Then, I had to write copious notes for our sitter so she would be ready for her first sleepover with our son. Finally, I had to pack for my husband and me—and here is where hell’s hatchet fell upon us.
Every night I put a thick ointment in my eye to keep it from sticking to my eyelid and tearing as I sleep. As we were heading out the door, I grabbed a box from the bathroom vanity that I thought was the right medication (we buy the ointment in bulk) and threw it into our suitcase. Inwardly, I congratulated myself for even remembering this detail amidst all the hustle and bustle of our departure.
Alas, after a lovely dinner and some much needed down-time in our hotel room, I discovered that I had selected the wrong medication in my haste a few hours earlier. I was still holding an eye lubricant in my hands, but it was not as powerful a formulation. It’s okay, I told myself. This will do just as well. It’s only one night.
How very wrong I was. At 4 a.m., I shot up in bed in all-too-familiar agony.
There would be no going back to sleep. No leisurely breakfast. No anything, except the attempt to get immediate help for my eye, which was suffering another erosion.
Thank God for my husband, who checked us out of the hotel very early without complaint and drove me to the office when I secured an appointment. He also kept my son amused while I saw the doctor, who turned out to be my specific specialist covering that weekend.
By late morning we were back home, my eye bandaged with a special contact lens, and my pain much assuaged. Help had been right there when we needed it. And for that we were grateful.
But we could not help feeling like we had been royally gypped. We had set aside the precious time away from our son, who requires so much care from us. We had made all the appropriate preparations, laid out the funds, inwardly pledged to do something both nice and necessary to celebrate our relationship.
To compound the issue, my eye took longer to heal than I expected, and so I remained in some discomfort for days as the piece of plastic on my cornea did its job of smoothing out its surface and holding its layers together like a lasagna.
The car mishap occurred about 3-4 days into this process, confirming the fact that I was just going to have to wait for things to settle at their own pace. I might have some bad days (and nights) along the way. I simply had to endure.
(As an aside, the use of numbing drops on the eye is strictly controlled, as too much of this medication is harmful. No patient with an erosion gets to take home their own bottle of eyedrop painkiller, darn it.)
As I tried to get on with life, two little things happened which caught my attention.
First, my son came home from summer camp with a “bug jar” that he had made. It was decorated with antennae and two googly eyes, one of which immediately fell off and was lost in the wilds of my kitchen. A few days later it reappeared in another part of the house and I pounced on it like hidden treasure. Something in me suspected that its recovery was significant.
Second, when I was driving in my car one day, I looked up at the tanker truck in front of me and saw that a giant eye had been painted on its posterior. It was literally staring at me as I scurried home, hoping I’d make it to my front door without incident.
Two eyes—one little, one big—presenting themselves to me at the precise time when I was struggling with that same part of my anatomy. I did not think it a coincidence. Obviously, God was trying to show me that He was present in the thick of my affliction, but there was more to His message than just “I’m here.”
A story from 2 Chronicles provided me that “more.”
Starting in chapter 14, we learn of a king named Asa, who proves to be a serious reformer when he comes to power, tearing down religious sites devoted to false gods and uniting some tribes of Israel by instituting devout worship of the Lord. As a result, when a formidable Ethiopian army (a million men strong and outfitted with chariots) comes against him, Asa seeks God’s help. Though vastly outgunned, the Ethiopians are thoroughly routed by the king of Judah.
Notably, after the smoke clears, Asa is approached by a prophet who speaks warning and promise, both in emphatic terms:
“The Lord is with you while you are with Him. If you seek Him, He will be found by you, but if you forsake Him, He will forsake you….
But take courage! Do not let your hands be weak, for your work shall be rewarded!” (2 Chronicles 15:2, 7, ESV)
Upon hearing these words, Asa furthers his reforms and makes a formal covenant with God whereby Judah should “seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, with all their heart and with all their soul, but whoever would not seek the Lord, the God of Israel, should be put to death, whether young or old, man or woman” (2 Chron 15:12, 13). Serious policy from the zealous king, who then deposes his own mother, the queen, because of her idolatry (see 2 Chron 15:16—when you mess with your mom, you mean business).
Now here is where things get sticky in the story. After a long stretch of peace, the Israelite king Baasha (from the north), starts building a blockade to cut off access to Judah, King Asa’s territory (to the south). In response, Asa removes treasure that he had gathered in the temple and his own house and sends it to a third king, Ben-hadad of Syria, who was an ally to Baasha. Asa essentially bribes Ben-hadad to attack Baasha so that the northern king withdraws, abandoning his incursion into the south. Asa then swoops in and grabs the spoils left behind by his enemy.
For all his cunning and capability, Asa earns not praise but a rebuke from a truth-speaking seer, who condemns the southern king for turning to Syria rather than the Lord for help in his hour of need. “Didn’t God just save you from a huge army of chariots and horsemen?” comes the withering question, to which Asa has no reply but to imprison the questioner in anger (2 Chron 16:8, 10).
As I try to imagine Asa’s mindset during the Ethiopian conflict vs. his clash with Baasha, I start to squirm in my seat a little. On the surface, the events look similar—both dealing with foreign interlopers intent on destroying Judah. But if I go deeper, I begin to suspect that Asa felt rather more vulnerable the first time around, as reports of a swarming army came in. This wasn’t something he had any hope of defeating, so he immediately cried out to God (to hear his prayer, see 2 Chron 14:11).
The second time around, Asa seems to set his eyes on earth rather than heaven. His first line of defense is to deploy the resources he has on hand, going so far as to plunder the temple to lure Ben-hadad away from Baasha. The only—and last, in fact—direct speech we hear from this king of Judah is directed toward the Syrian king (i.e., “Side with me rather than the other guy”—2 Chron 16:3).
My guess is that Asa must have felt his ploy would work, as indeed it did. He got busy managing the situation, using his “pros” as a political leader to overcome his “cons.” But isn’t this what we’d expect of someone in his position—to take practical steps to protect his people? Quickly? Wasn’t Asa in the right?
This narrative seems to suggest otherwise. Believers (especially those in positions of authority) are expected to maintain a running dialogue with the Lord, whether their circumstances appear manageable or impossible. Before being clapped in a stockade, the seer rebuking Asa makes a rather astounding statement explaining the matter from a divine point of view.
For the eyes of the Lord roam throughout the earth, so that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His. (2 Chron 16:9, NASB)
With these words, the seer sets up a direct correlation between the Creator who rescues and the creatures who may or may not respond to His initiative. For His part, the “roaming” God does appear in prophetic texts (Zech 4:10, Amos 8:12, Dan 12:4, Jer 5:1), each time conveying a sense of eagerness or urgency. God is not ambling about, waiting for the odd prayer to alight on His shoulder like a butterfly. Rather He is striding the length and breadth of the planet, hot on the trail of His devotees, furiously orchestrating their deliverance.
He’s laser focused and indefatigable when it comes to His people. He’s all-in.
However, those who wish to receive God’s earnest help must demonstrate that they are likewise committed to Him. The word for “completely” derives from shalom, or peace. It carries a sense of wholeness or perfection, nothing lacking. Today we might use the phrase “sold out” to describe such an attitude of heart. It’s not that believers have to have a clean scorecard to merit God’s intervention. They just have to keep waiving it like a white flag before Him, fully aware of how dependent they are on their Creator to keep His covenant with them
Asa wasn’t doing much waving when Baasha invaded. In fact, the chronicler of his life notes that a mere three years later the king contracts a mortal disease and “does not seek the Lord, but sought help from physicians” (2 Chron 16:12, ESV). Sadly, the seer’s words prove true. Having forsaken the Lord, the king of Judah is given over to death. One wonders what type of alternate ending his story might have had if he had been able to hold onto the devotion of his former days when he prayed, “Oh Lord, there is none like You to help” (2 Chron 14:11, ESV).
When I consider the wide spectrum of my responses to God in crisis I see that I am no better than Asa. Yes, sometimes I manage to cry out to Him first and foremost when I know I’m a goner. But what about the tons of times I stretch out my hands to the resources around me, when I rely—in a primary way—on the gifts and strengths God Himself has supplied me? I hate to admit it, but there are times when the smoke clears in my situation and I forget to acknowledge God altogether. I just move on to the next thing.
One of the last teachings Jesus gave His disciples was this: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5 ESV).
That last part has always rankled me a little. Nothing? Really? Because sometimes, when I’m hard pressed in the moment, I can prove myself to be a pretty competent advocate, communicator, nurturer, organizer. I do what needs to be done for those in my orbit, often laboring under the illusion that I am in control. (How many times has God held back the natural consequences of my arrogance and unbelief? Let me take sole credit for successes achieved with His aid? I shudder to think.)
But then there are other times (like at the hotel at 4 a.m.) when I feel like I can’t make one tiny mistake. I can’t pack everything perfectly. I can’t keep chaos at bay. Can’t fight off an enemy whom Jesus said wants to steal my joy (John 10:10). That’s when I feel like I have to keep looking over my shoulder. That’s when, as the prophet said, my hands fall weak, and God seems too far away to reward all my hard work.
Friends, the truth is that slipping from a place of clear dependence on God to a state of spiritual numbness and amnesia is so subtle. After all, we live in a fallen world where invaders attack us daily and draw our attention away from Him and place it on ourselves.
I think the worst invader of all wants to steal our joy by cutting us off from the Creator who runs the length and breadth of our lives, seeking to plant it in us, if only we will let Him. If only we will remember to abide with Him both in good times and in bad. And not just because it keeps us safe, but because we genuinely love—or want to love—the One who first loved us.
Maybe you won’t remember until you’re back at home, resting from a battle you didn’t know you were going to have to fight that day. Maybe you won’t remember until some of the bitterness in your heart drains away. Doesn’t matter. Just lift your face to heaven when you do remember and be quick to say His name.
Close call. Not so much of a “near miss” as a descriptor of the phone line between God and me. The string between our soup cans is so short I can feel His breath on my cheek, hear His whisper in my ear. Summoning me to shalom, a relationship that is whole, perfect, unconditional, enduring.
O Lord, whose eyes are fastened with such love upon us, let us see Your presence all around us and in us.
For we surely need it.