A Friend named Ivory
From the book, The Mockingbird’s Song by Curt Iles
“A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17).
I don’t plan to ride out another hurricane. That bad girl named Hurricane Rita (the younger sister of Katrina) made a mess of SW Louisiana. My night of riding out the storm was an unforgettable time of falling trees, roaring wind, rain blowing sideways, and all types of crises from the three hundred evacuees we were sheltering at our church camp.*
However, my constant companion on that night was my faithful lab, Ivory. She stayed beside me as I fitfully tried to sleep on the couch in my office. When I had to venture out into the storm to deal with a problem, she slipped out the door with me, in spite of her great fear of bad weather.
Nearly a year after the hurricane, on a hot August summer day, my friend Ivory sits faithfully beside me. The porch at “The Old House” has very little breeze today and the sweat runs down my arms onto my hands and onto the laptop keyboard. She is panting heavily as dogs do to sweat.
Yet my friend Ivory doesn’t mind the heat. She’s content to be here with me—her friend. Now some people may not consider a dog a special friend, but I do. Ivory, a yellow Labrador retriever, has been my constant companion for over twelve years. Even though she belongs to my son Clint, she really loves me the best. Well, at least that is what I tell Clint, who is now married and living in Mississippi.
Five years ago during the darkest days of my depression, Ivory sat faithfully beside me each day. She didn’t ask questions but attentively listened as I spoke to her. Her heavy tail would loudly thump on the porch floor whenever I spoke even one word. It was as if she was just happy to hear my voice, no matter what I might be saying.
Thinking back to Ivory’s faithfulness and the comfort of her presence, I think about three biblical friends with the unusual names of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. You are probably like me and not familiar with these men. I’m not even sure about the pronunciation of their names, especially when you attach their surnames. The Bible, in the book of Job chapter 2, calls them:
Eliphaz the Temanite,
Bildad the Shuhite, and
Zophar the Naamathite.
Even if you don’t recognize them and their mouthful of names, you’ve probably heard about them. I’ve heard countless sermons on the godly man named Job. Usually the speaker will refer to them collectively as “Job’s three friends.” Several times I’ve heard this comment attached, “With friends like those three, who needs enemies?”
Regardless of how they’ve been given a slightly bum rap because of their later shortcomings, they started out good. When they heard of the tragedies that had befallen Job, they were distraught. In the space of a few days, Job had lost everything that seemed to matter—his family, his flocks, material wealth, and then his health.
These three men made plans to go check on their friend. As they neared they didn’t even recognize their formerly prosperous neighbor who sat on a pile of ashes scratching his festering sores and boils with a shard of broken pottery.
Here is how Job 2:12 describes this sad scene: “And when they raised their eyes from afar, and did not recognize him, they lifted their voices and wept; and each one tore his robe and sprinkled dust on his head toward heaven.”
However, they did something that we should learn from: They came … even though their hearts were heavy … they came.
Even though what they saw tore at their souls … they stayed.
Even though they did not know what to say or do … they gave Job the gift of their presence.
It is so easy to avoid those who are hurting deeply … the terminal cancer patient awaiting death in hospice care; the co-worker going through the devastation of the death of a marriage and the pain it brings; the mother who has just buried a young child; the friend or relative in the depths of depression who has drawn the blinds at home and sunk into self-imposed isolation.
We don’t go and we use the excuse, “I just don’t know what I would say.”
Take a lesson from a dog, named Ivory: you don’t have to say much of anything—your presence is enough.
Hurting folks don’t need a sermon or psychoanalysis; they need a shoulder to lean on. A hand to hold. A short, quiet prayer. Your presence is what they need.
Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar understood about that need to simply be quietly present as evidenced by their next actions:
“So they sat down with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his grief was very great” (Job 2:13).
These guys arrived and saw the devastation of their friend. His grief was so deep that they never said a word for seven days! They even sat on the ground—that heap of ashes—with their grieving friend, Job.
What an example of the ministry of simply being there!
This art of being present reminds me of my best friend, Joe. Joe Aguillard and his wife Judy have been our best friends for over thirty years. DeDe and I have raised our three boys with their three precious girls. As families we’ve been with each other during the joys of life as well as the sorrowful and traumatic times.
When our son Clint suffered a serious hip dislocation playing high school football, DeDe and I ended up in the second hospital of this long night after two rough and scary ambulance rides. Tough decisions awaited us as the orthopedic doctors shared the options on treating Clint’s hip.
During this traumatic night, about 2 a.m., is when Joe and Judy Aguillard walked into the hospital emergency room in Lake Charles. I don’t remember what they said, or how long they stayed, I just remember that our best friends were there to sit beside us.
Several years later I sat by Joe and Judy at a hospital in Alexandria as they dealt with a serious situation of one of their daughters. In this ICU waiting room, they didn’t need my words or a sermon, they just needed friends to be there to sit, pray, and listen.
Often folks don’t show up at tough times because they don’t know “what to say.” The answer to this is simple: Show up anyway and don’t say much. Just listen and be present.
A recent Dear Abby8 column brought a ton of letters weighing in on what is proper to wear to funerals. The literary combatants all explained their views on wearing black, white, or bright colors. However the last printed letter that day summed up the power of presence in times of grief. The writer simply stated, “After my father’s funeral, I could tell you who was there, but not what one single person was wearing. Sometimes what you wear doesn’t matter. The respect people show outweighs everything else.”
This lady who wrote Dear Abby understood that what matters is presence—and at no time is presence more needed than when a person is hurting.
At the graveside service of a recent funeral I conducted, I asked the family if there was anything they’d like for me to say to the gathered crowd. As the brother of the deceased looked around at the crowd, he said, “Thank them for coming. Many
of you took a day off from work to come and others drove a long way to be with us. Please thank them.” It didn’t matter that most of the attendees were in jeans and simple work clothes. What mattered was that they came.
We don’t know how Job’s friends dressed but we do know they came and took the risk of going and being there with their friend.
The bad reputation of these three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, proceeds from the fact that after that one week of sympathetically listening and sitting, they began to attempt to explain why these tragedies had happened to Job.
The commonly held Jewish belief of this time was: “Godly people only have good things happen to them. Therefore if bad things occur, you’ve sinned and made God mad.” After one week of silent ministry, these three friends began a series of helpful “seminars” for Job. If God hadn’t finally shut them up later, they might still be waxing eloquently as they explained all of their presumptive reasoning to Job.
If you’ve never read the book of Job, I encourage you to get a readable translation and study this fascinating story.
Job’s story, especially how his friends come to see him, is a good reminder that folks hurting, especially those in depression, need our presence. What makes it hard is that those in depression don’t want others around. They will literally hide to avoid contact with others. That is a symptom of the illness—a longing for isolation while avoiding what we need most—human interaction, loving touch, and compassion.
Recently, a younger man who is like a son to me went through an extremely difficult period in his life. Much of his pain was self-inflicted but he dearly needed friends, especially men, to minister to him. Sadly, he felt that the men of our community and church had let him down. Even as I reminded him of men who had tried to help him, a sense of deep disappointment was evident in his words.
Finally, I said, “When I was sick and depressed and didn’t leave the house for weeks, why didn’t you come see me?” His answer has never left my heart and hopefully continues to motivate me to be “busy with the ministry of presence.”
He told me, “I couldn’t stand to see you that way and I didn’t know what to say.”
It convicted me that I had used that same flimsy excuse to avoid visiting others who were hurting.
Recently, I had the opportunity to “practice what I’m now preaching.” I received word that the father of three of my best lifelong friends, Danny, Larry, and David Cole had drowned. Their father, Mr. Olen Cole, had always been one of my favorite people. As I rushed to the Cole pond, I hurriedly prayed for them as they faced one of the greatest trials a family can have. I also silently asked God to use me to comfort them.
Driving up to the field filled with police cars and an ambulance, I saw David and his wife Deleta walking from the pond across the open field toward the home of David’s parents. I knew he was going to break the terrible news to his mother. I hurriedly caught up with them. All I could do was put my hand on David’s shoulder and walk with him. I told him I loved him, loved his family, and would go with them if he needed me to. As we neared the house I uttered a short prayer asking for God’s grace to be with this family right now.
Then I simply shut up. That is not easy for me because I like to talk: I want to comfort and help. But David Cole, his mom, and brothers did not need my words on this day. They just needed me to be there. That hand on the shoulder and hot tears running down my cheeks was the greatest service I could give. Many times words are not needed whereas our physical presence is.
May I learn (and re-learn) this lesson: the lesson of Job’s three friends who came, stayed, and didn’t speak for a week. And may we remember the wonderful seven-day testimony of Job’s three friends—who left their families, fields, and flocks to sit mutefully with their grieving friend. And may we remember others don’t need our words or advice nearly as much as they need our touch and physical presence.
May we remember the lesson of Ivory the yellow lab—Just “being there and thumping your tail” is what others often need most. Ivory is always ready to look into my eyes, saying little but showing great love.
Showing such great love and presence that no words are needed …
A faithful friend, even in the storm.
A good example from a faithful, twelve-year-old friend named Ivory.