The lights went down, the strum of a guitar reverberated throughout the place. The girls in front of me sighed, closed their eyes, and raised their hand in the air in worshipful manner. Was I at the worship portion of yet another Lenten retreat? No, ma’am. It was Garth Brooks opening the Houston Livestock and Rodeo Show last week. My husband is a big Garth devotee and was dying to see the show but didn’t say anything until I pried it out of him when it was too late to get tickets. In another Lenten miracle, our friend, Kenneth, came to the rescue with an invitation – two days before the show. And what a show it was.
Garth sounded great, but what made the performance special was that he was so into it. Many times, he stopped in pure surrender to the cheering crowd and expressed his gratitude and humility. He also thanked people for standing by while he and wife, Trisha Yearwood, “raised [their} babies.” “You made me realize,“ he told the crowd, “it’s enough to be me.” Respect. People went wild for the The River, and my personal favorite, Calling Baton Rouge, but all Garth had to do was pay one chord and the stadium erupted for Friend in Low Places. I got a kick out of watching the entire crowd come together and sing. I looked around at the girls in front of me, hands still raised, the woman next to me with the multi-karat diamond ring, my husband and our friends, — everyone belted out the tune. Imagine over 75,000 people yelling, “Think I’ll go on down to the OOOO-asis!” It seems everyone, no matter their walk in life, likes the idea of friends in low places.
Just like Jesus. Perhaps because of the season, I could not help but think of Jesus and the tax collector as I listened to the song. In fact, all the outcasts Jesus reached sprang to mind. Of course, I had to look them up. Most of these stories occur in Mark, so I am guessing he had some issue there. Perhaps he was not invited to the right parties or wore the wrong sandals. However, his message comes through loud and clear. Jesus came for the outcasts, the sinners, and this is a party we are all invited to join.
While Garth was singing about the divide between high society and low, the idea can be expanded to any situation where we exclude others. It is even easy to fall into the trap of Christianity or salvation as a private, exclusive club, an “ivory tower,” if you will (just like the song!). We create a “them” and “other,” instead of continually reaching out to people and engaging them in the Gospel. Jesus came to break down these walls and remind us, we are all in the same boat. We are all friends in low places. It is a club we all belong to, like it or not, and we all know the lyrics.
It is also the perfect time of year to embrace our inner sinner. How many times have I thought about the actions of others, thinking, “Well, at least I didn’t do that,” instead of examining my own faults? The voices of pride and self-righteousness sneak in, prompting you to think you are better than someone else, not because you live in a mansion, but because your sins don’t seem that bad compared to theirs. I hate to remind myself that comparisons like these have no value. Each person’s struggle with sin is unique and we cannot judge others, tempting as it may be!
It is also tempting for me to keep spending all my time with sinners at the “OOO-asis” (perfect for my Lenten “desert” theme, BTW), and I sometimes like to imagine Fun Jesus having a party with all the sinners. I can forget that he wasn’t encouraging bad behavior. Jesus embraced sinners because he came to raise them up. That is hard part. I enjoy lot of my sins. They are comfortable and familiar. Continuing my Lenten journey means I am going to have to leave these old friends and move on. I will have to walk a tightrope between the oasis of complacency and the ivory tower of self-righteousness. When faced with being pulled in different directions, we need to remember what Garth said: it is enough to be us.
Garth will be closing the Rodeo, too, which I think is fitting. It is the first time in 25 years he has performed here. He didn’t sing Unanswered Prayers at the opening, which is one of Ted’s favorites. I bet he will do it at the second show. It would be a great way to end Lent, reminding us that God’s plan is not necessarily our plan:
Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers
Remember when you’re talkin’ to the man upstairs
That just because he doesn’t answer doesn’t mean he don’t care
Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.
Meanwhile, I think I’ll go on down to The Oasis. It might be time for some farewells.