September 21, 2009

“Friends in Low Places”
by Pastor George Van Alstine

We have all been taught in our youth the importance of choosing friends wisely. If we hang around with mischievous kids, we’re likely to get in trouble ourselves. Bad associations also cause us to develop habits of thinking, language and action that can be hard to break later when we are facing more serious life issues. So, we’ve been taught, learn early to keep company with the right kinds of people.

Of course, there’s also a bonus from developing good associations. The right people know how to behave and make right choices, so they’re likely to be assets when we need a helping hand along the way. This has led to the saying “I have friends in high places.”

The country/western song popularized by Garth Brooks flies in the face of all this wisdom:

“I’ve got friends in low places
Where whiskey drowns and beer chases
My blues away
And I’ll be okay
I’m not big on social graces
Think I’ll slip on down to the oasis
Oh, I’ve got friends in low places”

Friends in low places are sure to drag you down, but the songwriter captures the mood of a person who is already feeling put down by “proper folk” and is seeking a level of comfort.

Of course, you can easily go so far down into low places that even these “friends” can’t stand hanging with you. An old folk song tells the story:

“One evening in October
When I was about one-third sober
I was taking home a load with manly pride,
My poor feet began to stutter
So I lay down in the gutter
And a pig came up and lay down by my side.
“Well I lay there in the gutter
And my heart was all a-flutter
When a lady passing by was heard to say:
‘You can tell a man who boozes
By the company he chooses.’
And the pig got up and slowly walked away.”

I was trying to figure out why, against my better judgment, I actually liked the lyric “I’ve got friends in low places.” Then I remembered a conversation I had with Arthur Blessitt.

Rev. Arthur Blessitt was an ordained Southern Baptist minister who came to Los Angeles from his home territory in Louisiana during the 1960s, so that he could be close to the action. He had read about the hippies, drug addicts, runaways and go-go clubs that were popping up in America’s big cities, and he felt that the Lord was calling him to go to the “low places” and make “friends” of these people who needed Jesus. He opened an all-night psychedelic hang-out for street people on Hollywood Boulevard, which he named “His Place.” Many hopeless, burnt-out street people found the Lord during its years of operation.

When the landlord closed down “His Place” in 1969, Arthur decided to take his witness in a new direction. He took up his cross to follow Jesus (Luke 9:33). He began dragging a wooden cross around the streets of Hollywood. This expanded to a well-publicized cross-carrying walk across the United States. In the forty years since, Blessitt had dragged his cross 38,102 miles across 315 nations, islands and other jurisdictions, testifying everywhere about how Jesus came to redeem all kinds of people in all kinds of low places. This year, Trinity Broadcasting produced a film about his remarkable life.

In the 1980s a Christian publisher hired me to edit a book Arthur Blessitt was writing. This was shortly after his across-America trip. Early in the process, I was taken to lunch by the publisher and Arthur himself. I must admit that I was prepared to meet a spiritual oddity, a quack, a cartoon Christian, because that’s the way he was being portrayed in the media—even in the Christian press. But I found the man to be charming, totally likable, and 100% believable. Any doubts I had about his sincerity were dispelled.

In that conversation, I learned that the cross he carried weighed 45 lbs. It was dragged, but not with the bare wood scraping on pavement. The bottom of the cross was equipped with a ten-inch wheel, and the wheel was fitted with a rubber pneumatic tire. He joked with me about how he wore out the soles of several pairs of shoes before he had to replace a tire.

One other fascinating tidbit he tossed my way: when he went into a strange town, he would look first for a bar. This was not just because bars were his primary witnessing target. It was because he had learned that people in bars were more likely to extend a welcome to a weird stranger. Average folk on the street would look the other way, and churches were the worst—he would always find a cold shoulder there.

But, he added, he personally was also more comfortable in such low places. As a boy of ten or so, he had been taken along as his father visited a favorite bar. He’d sit on a nearby chair and watch daddy and his companions down a few. He found that later in life, the casual chatter among bar patrons brought back nostalgic feelings. So in a strange new town, he’d often find the nearest bar, lean his cross next to the door, sit on a stool, order a coke, and say, “Howdy!” Someone nearby would ask, “What’s that thing you drug over here?” and the conversation would be on, soon leading to Jesus-talk.

I suppose it’s good that we teach children to avoid finding friends in low places, but as more mature believers, maybe that’s where we really need to be. Jesus spent very little of his time with people in high places. He was “numbered with the transgressors” and “made his grave with the wicked” (Isaiah 53:9, 12). The religious leaders, the good folk, the people in high places—when they saw his associations, like the pig, they “got up and slowly walked away.”