Friends in Low Places

I was in my early twenties when Garth Brooks’ smash hit Friends in Low Places debuted. There was something about the earthy guttural growl andselective focus photography of man playing electric guitar on stage sweet southern twang of the song, along with that little bite of sweet poetic justice, that felt right at home in my life as an early twenties single woman living in Nashville.  Although I still find myself occasionally indulging in the nostalgia of the newer oldies, the song had a very different meaning to me then than the phrase does now…Because I indeed really do have friends in low places.

Very low places. Hard places. Tragic places. Not  “where the whiskey drowns and the beer chases my blues away” places glorified in the old country song. Years of living, learning, losing, and letting go removed all the glitter and gloss from the drama of broken relationships, revenge, half-hearted commitments, and unhealthy patterns of dealing with life and loss.

I have friends in much lower places than that. Dark, lonely places of loss, abandonment, rejection, abuse, addiction, confusion, sickness, disability, job loss, financial ruin, and difficult diagnosis.

In this world you will have trouble. -Jesus

Well-rehearsed preachers, prosperity gospel, Pollyanna promises, and the proverbial rose-colored glasses can all try to deny the reality of pain, suffering, and loss that everyone will eventually face; but Jesus himself warned us. Prepared us. But He also said:

But take heart! I have overcome the world.

Take heart. What does that even mean? Other nick-fewings-ka7REB1AJl4-unsplashtranslations say: take courage, be of good cheer, be brave, be courageous, have confidence…

I like “take heart.” It sounds active and involved. It lets me choose. It’s almost tangible. I can picture myself reaching out, or reaching in, and taking my heart. Speaking words of hope and encouragement. Be strong. Be brave. Be careful. Be kind. But be alive. Be teachable and be available for strengthening, encouraging, and reassuring…then for offering up as a humble sacrifice.

While we may not choose sickness, cancer, divorce, addiction, abuse, mistreatment, injustice. We can choose to take heart, take courage, be of good cheer, be brave, be courageous, and have confidence.

Proverbs 4:23 says Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.

heart brass-colored padlockGuard it. Above all else. It must be extremely valuable. I picture it like an ancient city. With walls and towers to protect against enemy onslaught and invasion…but with gates to swing open to welcome friends, provision, protectors, allies, healers. A fortress, not a prison. Guard it as one would diligently, methodically guard a storehouse of plenty and provision during famine, war, and threats of enemy plunder.

Because isn’t that really what we are up against: famine, lack, loss, wars, and threats of enemy plunder? Not merely threats to overtake peace, joy, and hope…but heart-sickening, soul-crushing blows to us and those we love.

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 1 Peter 5:8

But what does that have to do with friends in low places?

In the book of Galatians, the apostle Paul tells us to “Bear one another’s burdens.” Other translations say: carry, share, help, practice carrying, offer a helping hand.

img_8817Loving one another is sometimes hard. Bearing burdens is hard. When they hurt, you hurt, but…Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor. 

Being present and available can be scary when you don’t know what to say or do…For if one falls down, his companion can lift him up; but pity the one who falls without another to help him up! 

The world can be amazing and beautiful, but confusing and scary and cold…Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? 

But we are so prone to isolation and secrecy and self-protection…And though one may be overpowered, two can resist.

But we are called to be present to  share the love and hope of Jesus…Moreover, a cord of three strands is not quickly broken.  (Ecc 4:9-12)

img_8872Not one in isolation. Not two struggling to get by. But three strands! While often symbolic of a wedding ceremony, what does that look like in our day to day relationships and interactions? Especially with our friends in low places? You, your friend, God Almighty…

I haven’t always done it well. Honestly…I have probably failed more than I succeeded at  the face-to-face ministry of presence. But how I have wanted to be the faithful friend who sits in the ashes in the midst of another’s deepest pain and grief. How I have loved and prayed and lamented! I feel it in my very heart and soul sometimes. Real tangible pain and sadness. My friends in low places have walked hard roads recently. An unexpected loss of a young husband, the death of a child, a distant husband, an unwanted divorce, a congenital heart defect, prodigal children, addiction, tragic financial loss, betrayal, old wounds surfacing, a suicide attempt, a botched surgery, a bad mammogram, a pending biopsy… And more, so much more. Evidence that…yes, in this world we will have trouble.

Courage, dear heart.  -C.S. Lewis

Luke 5 recounts the story of a man in a very low place: Some men came carrying a paralyzed man on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus.  When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.

This  man was unable to take care of his very basic needs. He couldn’t stand, walk, or get to Jesus. His companions lifted him and bore his stretcher, shouldered his load, and brought him, weak and helpless, to Jesus. The man may have had good intentions. He may have had great self-discipline and solid determination, but in his own power he was simply unable to bear his own weight, make his own path, see above the crowd and confusion, and find his healing. He was in a very low place…but he had friends.

Maybe sometimes the best we can do is to carry our friends on a stretcher to the feet of Jesus.

Consider this: Maybe praying for their physical well-being and peace, as well as img_7254being present and attentive to their physical and emotional needs is a type of guarding their heart…

Take heart. Can you picture yourself reaching out, or reaching in, and taking their heart… Speaking words of hope and encouragement: Be strong. Be brave. Be careful. Be kind. Be alive. Be teachable and be available for strengthening, encouraging, and reassuring… Then helping them offer it up as a humble sacrifice…to a God who sees, cares, heals, and redeems. And what an honor to sit, walk, stand, or simply just be with the hurting and the broken. Shoulder to shoulder or face-to-face, but definitely heart to heart and spirit to spirit.

A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you when you have forgotten the words.

Low places…we’ve all been there, are there, or will be there at some point. But what a blessing to be able to cry out, “I’ve got friends!”

 

Another Prayer For My Hometown

In 2017 I wrote a post titled “A Prayer For My Hometown.” img_5200At the time, it was to address a specific situation happening locally. There was an outside hate group that threatened to come in to stir up division and discord…right here at our little town square. It was trouble threatening us from outside our boundaries…uninvited, unwanted, unsupported.

While that was addressing a specific time and event, I’ve noticed something interesting about the post: it has been viewed by people from 35 different countries in the past year. Thirty five!  It is by far my most widely read post. South Africa, Philippines, Russia, South Korea, Pakistan, India, Kuwait…just a few. Queue Walt Disney’s melodious musical tones of “It’s a Small World After All…”

I traveled to Guatemala on a mission trip in college. Since then, I haven’t really traveled very far. I don’t speak another language. I don’t really engage in varied cultures. But as I thought about people from all over the world sitting at their computers or on their phones doing a search for words and prayers for their hometown, the world suddenly became very familiar and very small to me. bd7936c9-c694-477f-a3b3-8c2473696a27It became my hometown, my familiar space, the place where I live and work and worship and love. I saw so much more than colors on a map.

As I have thought about the needs that would drive people to seek and to pray, I don’t believe it’s simply a black and white issue, a right or wrong issue, a peace or chaos issue, or an us and them issue… I believe there is an underlying common theme of human frailty, hurt, and need…and hope. People are hurting, people are searching, but so many people still cling to hope. And sometimes that is enough.

You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come…

I don’t really understand war. But parts of the world are always at war. Always. I don’t understand merciless killing or torture or captivity or terrorism. I don’t understand deceit and hatred based simply on appearance or social stature. The band Nickelback imagined it well:

If everyone cared and nobody cried,                                                                                                  If everyone loved and nobody lied
If everyone shared and swallowed their pride
 Then we’d see the day when nobody died.

But that’s just a song. Of course people die. And people do cry. Some deaths are mere echoes and celebrations of a lives well-lived. Some church1tears are joyous and cleansing and freeing. Some tears come from depth of pain and need. King David cried. Jesus wept. I have cried. I imagine you have too. Tears of sorrow, pain, loneliness, helplessness, anger, injustice, and hope. Tears for ourselves and tears for others. My heart hurts for people who are lost, displaced, discouraged, hopeless, or in fear. For people who feel cast aside and forgotten. Unwanted. I see it in the news and pages of magazines. I see it in people’s faces that I encounter daily. Some are in physical wars, others in emotional and spiritual battles. But many are searching for solutions, for remedies, for a moment of peace and hope in a sin-ravaged, war-torn world.

While I don’t really understand actual war,  I know that there are things and people and ideas that are worth fighting for. When I think of all the people in countries where their own government suppresses or sabotages them, where their children go hungry or die from treatable diseases, where the poor are treated as less-than or disposable…What can I do? Are they the ones who are searching for prayers for their own hometowns?

Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places…

When I see the devastation and loss and incredible tragedy as natural disasters are unleashed with destructive, uncontrollable, unpredictable power destroying everything in their paths…  When people lose their homes, their hopes, their communities…What can I do? Who is praying for their hometowns?

At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold…

I have recently traveled to several cities close to home where terrible tragedies have brokenchurchhappened. Two church shootings, other public shootings, serious widespread fires, racial unrest, tornadoes, unexpected violent deaths… When people are intentionally wounding others: abusing, exploiting, rejecting, abandoning, killing…What can I do? When people are overwhelmed with crippling fear, crushing anxiety, and debilitating depression…trapped inside their own heads, battling torment, mental health, or addictions….what can I do?

…but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved…

Yes, there are some tangible ways I can intervene. I can spend money and time and effort and kind words…but sometimes the bigger battle is fought on a different battlefield. When I can speak, I will speak. When I can give, I will give. When I can go, I will go. But sometimes… I can pray. I will pray. So this is my prayer for my hometown, for me, my family, my friends, my neighbors…and for you and your hometown too:

img_5729Lord, I pray that you will give me an abundance of faith, hope, and love…A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over… (Luke 6:38) I pray for: faith to seek and to believe, hope to want and to know, love to care and to intercede.

In addition, I pray for hunger. Not for satisfaction of an earthly longing, but for an insatiable desire…a hunger for truth, for action, for kindness, for mercy, for justice. He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8) 

Lord, could I pray for world peace and brotherly love, with an end to war and strife? An end to abuse, addiction, murder, and disease? Yes, but you told b5d10f36-f91d-4d3e-906d-b4d2cce03689us in John 16:33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”  So I pray for God-given peace regardless of circumstances.  For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. (2 Tim 1:7) I pray that we will not lose heart but will look to you.

I pray that each member of the church body will arise to the full function you have designed. Lord give us eyes that see worth, value, purpose, and God’s design. Eyes that see your way where there was previously no way. Eyes that see your image on each face we encounter and your hand on each unexpected miracle.

Give us ears that not only hear the cries of the lonely, the destitute, the needy….but also the gifted, those designed for service, the divine ideas whispered to our spirits in the quiet times.

Give us hearts open enough to love deeply but strong enough to be solid in conviction and truth. Sensitive to you and your leading but guarded enough to be aware of the enemy’s schemes.

Give us hands that reach the unreachable, that hold onto truth and hope, and that hold our families, our friends, our brothers and sisters, close and point them to you.

547275cc-c827-4d14-83e0-c081ec2a20a9Give us feet that stand firm on your word, your truth, your promises. Feet that go where you lead and create a path for those who are lost or searching to follow.

So while these may sound like simple personal prayers for the individual, healing begins with one. Encouragement begins with one. Discipleship begins with one. For as I am overflowing with faith, hope, love, and truth…I will be changed, my neighbors will be changed, my world will be changed. I will be praying for you and your hometown.

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy. (Prov 31:8-9)

And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.   (Mt 24:6-14)

 

Sacred Rest

I saw a funny T-shirt recently. It said:

JESUS TOOK NAPS.  BE LIKE JESUS.   Mark 4:38

Funny, right? A pretty familiar story, Mark 4 recounts the story of a very busy day in Jesus’ life. He had been teaching by the sea and such a crowd appeared that he got into a boat and spoke to the crowds from the water. The acoustics were probably better. The img_5732sun was probably hot, the crowd was probably tough. Well, I don’t really know that, but the story says He taught the crowd in parables. Sounds exhausting. Later when the crowd had dispersed and He was alone with his disciples and a few others, they asked him to explain the parables even further. Then later still, verse 34 says: “He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.”  That’s a lot of talking and teaching. Sounds like a full days work but his day still wasn’t over:

 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”  And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling.  But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.

Ever have a day like that? You work and give and talk and teach and care and then do it all over again at least a dozen times? Then just when you finally think you can get a little break, a little peace and quiet… a great storm arises. Maybe not a literal storm, but interruptions, nuisances, aggravations, accusations, or the unexpected. Where is the peace, the calm, the still, the rest?

I recently read a book that addressed peace, calm, and rest img_5722from a fresh, creative perspective. Sacred Rest was written by Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith, a medical doctor familiar with the serious negative physical, emotional, and spiritual effects that lack of rest produces in our bodies.

Merriam-Webster lists several definitions of the word “sacred” but the two that seem to shout the loudest about stilling the busyness of our minds and lives are these: dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity and highly valued and important.

When I first picked up the book, I expected the typical clichéd responses about rest: you need eight hours sleep, remember the Sabbath, be still and know, take some time for yourself, you can’t give away what you don’t possess, etc… What I actually found were unique ideas about various forms of rest I had never recognized or encountered…so much more than I ever expected. As I read real-life stories of actual people who struggled img_5730with physical and emotional pain, unrest, or turmoil, I saw bits of myself through the words of the author and through the eyes of the Great Physician. I walked along side people who felt guilty for resting, who felt the need to perform, who were so busy doing…they weren’t just living and loving and being.

Physical rest we understand. Mental rest? Emotional, spiritual, social, sensory, creative? Connections I hadn’t recognized or at least hadn’t let my mind fully understand.

Being in health care, it was easy for me to see through the eyes of the author, an internal medicine physician. I recalled many faces of patients I had seen who complained of anxiety, pain, sleeplessness, poor memory, exhaustion, img_5726personal conflict, and a myriad of other symptoms either real or perceived. I remembered countless faces of people in tears about the feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, or simply feeling overwhelmed by busyness, responsibilities, and hectic schedules. I also saw parents and kids, husbands and wives, friends, and other relationships staring blankly at phones and other devices rather than interacting with one another while waiting in the lobby or in the exam rooms. So many were not alone, but were isolated or lonely. Still, but not resting and at peace. They were going and working and doing and getting…and yet still wondering why they felt hollow, scattered, or heavy-laden. I have been there too.

Healing occurs when we allow ourselves the time, space, and grace to be in the presence of God in the middle of our busy lives.

As I write this, it is two days before Christmas. The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. The time when people are busy working, shopping, preparing, traveling, visiting. A sacred time of year when we celebrate Immanuel, God with us. But do we slow down and remember why he came?

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. John 10:10

This is not a book review; although I do highly recommend the book. I have been both challenged and encouraged by the stories, the fresh ideas and suggestions, and the tools the author provides. But this is more of an observation, a testimony to the fact that we are busy and bustling but are still often weary, worn, and isolated. It’s also an acknowledgment and reminder that we often don’t realize the impact that the stress, busyness, and lack of true rest have on our lives, our health, our responses, and our relationships. It’s a call to recognition, to renewal, to restoration, to rest. A call to lay down the burdens, still our minds and our bodies, quieten our devices, gather our loved ones, and bask in the gift of today. Be still and know.

“Peace! Be still!”  “Who then is this, that even the wind and waves obey him?” 

 

 

…may you never become so busy you neglectimg_5736 to enjoy the life you create.   Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith

bit.ly/SacredRest  #SacredRest

When Holidays Hurt

I’ve been feeling it in the air for awhile now… Days are shorter, nights are longer. Skies are darker and breezes are colder. Changing seasons and impending holidays are often harsh, stinging reminders of loss and loneliness.

roomThe evening grows long as I look out across the waiting room and see the many sad or sick faces waiting patiently…or not. Some fidget, sigh, and look at invisible watches on their wrists. Some stare blankly into the unreachable distance or at the monotonous pattern of the enclosing four walls, perhaps replaying old scenes or longed-for visions. Some stare absently into their phones for distraction, relief, or escape. Still they wait. I know many of their stories before they utter a word. I know their history or I read their eyes. I watch their shoulders slump, their hands fidget, their lips frown or faintly quiver. I feel the weight and the want and the weariness.

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” plays through christmasalonethe overhead speaker, piped in like a merry elf entertaining ideas of fun, frivolity, and lightheartedness, in denial of the pain, the longing, and the loss that the season brings to so many people.

The door opens and closes. Another name, another face, another story. There’s the familiar cloak of usual sickness: flu, sore throat, bumps, and bruises. Those are easy. Passing pain, sickness, or inconvenience that at least offers the hope of speedy relief and healing. But hanging heavy on the heads and shoulders of many are weightier garments: coverings made of death, disease, dysfunction. There’s divorce, abandonment, rejection, loss of dreams and other not-so-merry reminders in every piped in song, well-placed decoration, and carefully thought out department store diorama.

His wife was just found dead. Her husband lost a long battle with cancer. Children’s Services is involved. Her dad kicked her and told her not to tell. Her daughter has run away. Her son is in jail. It’s two weeks before Thanksgiving. He just lost his job. Their house burned to the ground. The Alzheimer’s is so much worse. Hospice has been called in.Third DUI. Arrested for heroin. Suicide. It’s almost Christmas.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.   Matt 11:28

I’ve been told it’s like a walking a treadmill…walking and climbing and struggling but never getting anywhere. Three steps forward and two steps back.alone1 But still they put one foot in front of the other. Some days are harder. Holidays are harder: days meant to gather and celebrate with people you love and people who love you. A time to reflect on blessings and health, the past and the future. So much to celebrate and be thankful for. But there are some who sit in quiet rooms all alone. There are some who sit in loud, clamorous rooms with many others, but are still alone. There are some who sit facing those who have mistreated, rejected, abused, or betrayed them. There are some who sit facing empty chairs of those who have left them through death or abandonment.

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Matt 9:36

What does it look like to offer hope to the hopeless, rest for the weary, compassion for the hurting,church1 and comfort for the grieving? Is there ministry in hearing, caring, and simply being present? What do you do when there’s no written prescription to ease the pain of heartbreak and loss and devastation? No first aid kit to stop the bleeding or cover the wound? No tender kiss to make it all better?

From the end of the earth I call to You, when my heart is overwhelmed and weak; Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.  Psalm 61:2

It has been a slow, humbling process…the realization that I don’t have all the answers. The fixer in me can’t fix all the hurt, restore all the loss, patch all the holes, or fill the empty seats.  I can’t and I’m not meant to. And with that, another realization… that it’s okay. I don’t have to be the great fixer, the final answer, a redemptive savior. I can’t be.

But what can I do? What can anyone do to make a difference in stara world with so much hurt and loss and fear and hopelessness and uncertainty? Is it enough to have eyes that see and ears that hear? To give a gift that is both free and priceless: to be seen and heard, recognized, and acknowledged? Validated and assured that they matter, that their struggles are real, that their hearts and lives are important, that someone cares, and more importantly, that there is hope?  Yes, it matters. It all matters. I can be a hand to hold. I can choose to extend a hand that reaches, lifts, holds, supports, gives. A hand to guide, to direct, to point to the truth that they are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of a God that loves them and wants to fill the empty places and the empty seats. I can be a voice. A voice that speaks truth and dispels lies and speaks words of encouragement and validation. And I can just be. I can sit in the ashes, care in the silence, be light in the darkness, and warmth in the cold season of the soul. I can offer hope in the simple ministry of being present and attentive. I can care.

I can love. ❤

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