Characters

There’s a black spot in the middle of the dining room floor.

It stays.

The burn mark embedded in the number 2 common oak hardwood floor is part of family lore now.  It’s not a dramatic story; the details don’t really warm the heart.  

Still, the memories have been woven into our history now.  

We’re keeping the history.  And the memories.

It was close to fifteen years ago that the Lovely Lady’s mom said goodbye to her sweetie as she rode away with her sister for a women’s meeting early one morning.

Her sweetie, the white-haired man who taught me all he knew of operating a music store, sat at the table in the kitchen with a cup of instant coffee between his gnarled hands.  It was a morning like any other.  

Only it wasn’t.

A couple of hours later, my mother-in-law and her sister pulled back into the driveway, almost immediately noticing that smoke was wafting out around the front door.  My mother-in-law suffered with crippling rheumatoid arthritis, so her sister rushed into the house.  A moment later, she came out coughing and sputtering with my father-in-law in tow.

Always the frugal pair, my in-laws had a wood stove in the living room to supplement the central heating unit.  The stove put out enough heat to allow them to turn the thermostat down a few degrees and save a significant amount on their utility bills.

The old man had been tending the fire when an ember fell to the hardwood floor just beside the fire-resistant mat under the stove.  For some reason, instead of picking it up with the tongs, he simply allowed it to sit there and ignite the floor into flame.  When the Lovely Lady’s aunt burst in the front door, he was sitting in a chair right beside the fire, oblivious to the danger he was in.

I said it wasn’t a spectacular story.  I even said it wasn’t one to warm the heart.  It is certainly neither of those.

The little campfire on the floor was the beginning of a long goodbye for his family (myself included) and the man we loved. Within months, even though he lived a few more years, he was gone, locked in his own world—oblivious to ours.  

Today, we look at the black spot lying there and we always laugh as we recall the event.  Then a funny thing happens.  The room falls silent, each of us lost in memories.  

They are different for every one of us, I’m sure.  Fun.  Sad.  Happy.  Serious.  All of them momentarily bringing to life once again the character—the father—the grandfather.

I only bring up the burned spot because we’re in the process of refinishing the old hardwood floor.  Now would be the time to sand down that black stain in the middle of the expanse of oak.  My brother-in-law asked me the other day about it.  I told him the same thing I wrote at the beginning of this little essay.

It stays.

I want to remember the character who was my father-in-law.  But somehow, the longer I write, the more I realize there is something else about that floor that reminds me more of who he was than the black mark marring it.

Number two common oak.  It’s not a choice most folks would make for their living/dining room floor.  

Clear oak is what you want.  With straight, even grain in long boards several feet in length, the consistency of color and appearance is superior.  Each piece looks like the one next to it and takes the stain and finish uniformly.

Number two common oak, on the other hand, comes in planks about two feet in length and in varying grains and colors, as well as having a few knot holes and even a worm hole or two.  Dark planks sit side by side with white ones.  You might find a few with clear, straight grain, but it’s more likely you’ll see the whirl of tight knots here and a filled hole over there.

Over hundreds of square feet, not one board is like another there.

The catalogs suggest you might want a number two common oak floor if you want the floor to demonstrate character.

Oh, this floor is filled with characters!

Somehow, in my mind’s eye, I see God laying the floor of His Church.

What a sight to behold!  It’s not, as some would have you believe, all of one color and consistency.  Not at all.

God’s Church—not a building, but a people—is full of character, and full of characters.  Exactly as He designed it to be, the colors and personalities as different as can be.  Idiosyncrasies are the rule rather than the exception.

What a beautiful sight!  The colors blend and complement each other, the grains and imperfections showing the grace and mercy of their Creator.

Side by side, interlocked together,  our strength and character evident to all, we work toward a common goal.  All of humankind should have the opportunity to be a part of this wonderful mosaic.

Side by side, interlocked together, we work toward a common goal. Click To Tweet 

The Savior Himself said it so clearly:  They’ll know you are my followers by your love for each other.  (John 13:35)

And yet, it doesn’t seem to be working like that, does it?  

Scraped and scuffed, with water spills hither and yon, the old floor doesn’t present such a beautiful picture to a world that looks on.

You know, the process I’m going through with the old floor in this house is one of the most violent and disturbing tasks I have done while remodeling.  The sander beats the old varnish off, whump, whump, whump, as I shove it back and forth across the floor, shaking the whole room.  Again and again, changing from the roughest, open grit to the fine, polishing surface, the old machine does violence to the wood beneath.

It seems as if the process would destroy any beauty—even any usefulness remaining in the old wood.  

And yet, the day will come when the new stain is applied and then the new finish, the liquid soothing away all memory of the hurt.  The floor will once again be made beautiful, its usefulness guaranteed for another generation or more.

I wonder if we complain overmuch at the touch of our Maker’s tools, the cleansing of the dirt and filth.  His heavy-handedness is only for our good, His short-lived discipline—for the long-term joy in His service.

Number two common.

I’m satisfied with the title.  I rather like some of the characters around me.  They don’t all look like me, don’t all talk like me, and certainly don’t all think like me.

It’s beautiful.  Even that big black spot over there, a reminder of former foolishness and loved ones, now absent.  

Beautiful.

 

 

To all who mourn in Israel,
    he will give a crown of beauty for ashes,
a joyous blessing instead of mourning,
    festive praise instead of despair.
In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks
    that the Lord has planted for his own glory.
(Isaiah 61:3 ~ NLT ~ Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. All rights reserved.) 

 

The Almighty must have loved the common people; He made so many of them.
(attributed to Abraham Lincoln ~ U.S. President ~ 1809-1865)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Rendering

It was on a recent trip to the local home center I noticed the new signage at the local chicken processing plant.

Wet Ingredients Facility.

Ewwww. 

The Lovely Lady and I were in complete agreement that it didn’t seem a very appetizing description.  We are determined never to partake of the products the factory will be generating.

Never.

And, given that the facility is the latest pet food production site for the company, it is to be hoped we can live by our commitment.

Somehow, within minutes, my mind went back to a conversation I had nearly forty years ago with the Lovely Lady’s father.  It was on one of our many excursions out into the countryside to deliver a piano to a customer.

The ancient white-haired man (all humans over sixty were ancient to me then—not anymore) and I had ridden a few miles down the chip-and-seal country road, enjoying the beautiful Ozark Mountain foothills.  Suddenly, the old man twisted the steering wheel of the old Dodge van violently to the right and within seconds, we were creaking and rattling over the bumps and potholes of the rocky stone and dirt lane.  

After a mile or so of bouncing along, I noticed the collapsing cement block walls of the old place coming up on the left-hand side as we approached.  Wrinkling up his nose, he yelled over the racket.

That’s where the old rendering plant used to be!

The circumstances weren’t conducive to conversation, but I had to know.

Rendering plant?  What’s that?

He explained as we rode on.  You wouldn’t know it, but it had been one of the first truly green industries around.  Meat processing plants, farmers, grocery stores—all of them brought their unusable animal parts, dead by natural or unnatural means, and left them with the rendering plant to turn into useful products.

The rendering plants turned out tallow for candles, or soaps, and even pet foods.  Tons of valueless, nasty garbage—turned into consumable (and profitable) products.

It was recycling at its best.  Or perhaps, at its worst.

Oh.  The stench!  When the wind was from the east, it hung over the whole town.  You could hardly breathe.

And with that, there was an explanation for the nose-wrinkling.  I laughed, imagining the malodorous atmosphere, many years past the time the smelly old factory had closed down and been abandoned.

Beneficial processes aren’t always pleasant.  They’re not.

Sometimes, for trash to become treasure, repulsive stages must be endured.

I’m happy the rendering plant is defunct; I’m just as happy the new wet ingredients facility has state-of-the-art equipment to keep me from smelling said wet ingredients, along with whatever else happens to go into that particular mix.

But, I’m curious now.  My brain, wandering a little and (odd how it works like this) wondering a lot, wants to know if this rendering thing has anything to do with the words spoken centuries ago by the Teacher, as he was examined by those who detested Him.

Holding the Roman coin in His hand, He made it clear to all who were listening that the image on it was indeed, Caesar’s and instructed them to render unto Caesar that which was his.  Three of the apostles included the event in their Gospels.  Three.

This must be important stuff.

Men have argued through the ages since about taxation and its relevance to followers of God and His Son.  They always will.  

They also miss the point.

The words that followed His instruction about Caesar bear more—much more—consideration.

Render unto God that which is God’s.

The coins were stamped by the hundreds of thousands and dispersed to every corner of the Empire.  For all that, they still belonged to the Empire.

The evidence was the image stamped upon them.  They were Caesar’s—no one else’s.

I wonder.  Do you suppose anyone listening missed the importance of the comparison?  I don’t think they did.

The spies from His enemies were all experts in the Law.  They knew—absolutely knew—the significance of the words.

Render to God. . .

Where is God’s image stamped?

It’s not a difficult question.  There is but one answer.

It is stamped on every single human being ever born.  Every one.  It always has been.  It always will be.

We are made in His image. (Genesis 1:27)

I understand how taxes would be paid to Caesar.  But, how does one render what is due to God?

Jesus Himself answered the question, although the answer had already been given centuries before He sat with them and said the words.  Love God with everything you have.  Heart.  Soul.  Mind.  Strength. (Mark 12:29-30)

The apostle, for whom I am named, said it more than once.  Every knee will bow and every tongue will declare—to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2: 10-11)  

And, before that: I beg you to yield yourselves to God.  Do that, and He will render you into a new person completely. (Romans 12: 1-2)

And, what of the odor from the process?  

That’s going to be a problem, right?

Not so much.  Somehow, in the process of rendering back, the byproduct is a sweet aroma. 

As perfume rising to the heavens is the return of the gift to the Giver.

As perfume rising to the heavens is the return of the gift to the Giver. Click To Tweet

The process may seem painful at times.  It may appear to be to our disadvantage, temporarily.

The day is coming when we will see the complete result of the rendering.

Changed in a moment’s time. 

Rendered to Him at last.

The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.

Forever.

Until then, I trust the air around is pleasantly scented.

It’s the aroma of a soul in process.

You’ll let me know, won’t you?

 

 

 

Give of your best to the Master;
Give Him first place in your heart;
Give Him first place in your service;
Consecrate every part.
Give, and to you will be given;
God His beloved Son gave;
Gratefully seeking to serve Him,
Give Him the best that you have.
(from Give of Your Best to the Master ~ Howard Grose ~ American author/poet ~ 1851-1939)

 

Now he uses us to spread the knowledge of Christ everywhere, like a sweet perfume.
(2 Corinthians 2:14b ~ NLTHoly Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2017. All Rights Reserved.

If It Ain’t Broke

The girls were visiting and the piano needed attention.  Funny how that happens.

Months—absolutely months— can go by without a word to me about making repairs to the old thing, but let the girls come to visit and it’s time to see to what ails it.

I’ve done this many times before.

The G below Middle C is acting up!  Not many songs in our repertoire can be played without that G.

She says the words and I know exactly what must be done.  Not that anyone else cares besides me, but the jack flange has come loose from the wippen and the hammer isn’t returning quickly enough to its original position to be ready for the next repetition of the note.

It just needs a little spot of glue.

Applied to exactly the right place.

It’s always the jack flange.  Always.

The old piano is a hundred and thirty-eight years old.  It, perhaps, has earned a rest from its labors by now.  Still, in between these little crises, beautiful music can be heard spilling from the exquisite burled walnut case of the ancient instrument.

But, the girls. . .

I get my tools and take the front off of the piano one more time.

Why, one might ask, do I continue to repair one jack flange at a time (or two, if I’ve waited long enough for a second one to let go, as was the case this time), instead of taking the plunge and re-gluing every single flange?  All eighty-eight of them.

Ah.  There’s the rub.

They’re not all loose.  Yet.

One would assume the glue, nearly one hundred forty-years old, made from the hide of dead animals, would have deteriorated to the point that every joint would pop loose at the slightest touch.

It would be a wrong assumption.

The glue, for the most part, still holds the entire contrivance together admirably.  For the most part.

To remove all the flanges would involve infinite patience and time-consuming labor.  There would certainly be broken parts if they were forced apart.  

The old adhesive, brittle though it may be, still holds tightly enough and yet, ready to pop loose at whatever precise moment the molecules in the mixture break down.

An attempt to repair the entire piano would be disastrous.  And, foolish.

The smart piano technician waits until a repair is necessary to effect the remedy.

Or, in the everyday vernacular, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

I’m not sure how smart I am, but I know gluing a loose flange is much easier than repairing a broken one.  Especially one I’ve broken myself.

I left all the tightly glued flanges alone and removed only the two troublemakers.  Applying a spot of glue to the point of contact between the jack and the wippen, I matched the two parts together in precisely the same position they have held for the last century and just over a third.

They may hold for another century or more.

Time will tell.

You know, I’ve wondered why our Creator, omniscient and omnipotent as He is, wouldn’t notice all the problems we weak folk are going to have before they happen and simply take care of them for us.

All of us.  All at once.

But, He doesn’t, does He?  He leaves those of us who will fail right in among those who will carry on.  And, we break and fail.  Again and again.

We break and fail. Again and again. Click To Tweet

He knows exactly what needs to be done—exactly which part needs repair.

Every time, His touch—His love—mends the hurts and restores the errant parts of the Body.  Often, the restored members are stronger than they once were.

And, while the individual parts are getting the attention they need, the rest of the Body continues to function around its brokenness, making music for a listening world.

Beautiful music.  From flawed, broken, and repaired pieces of the whole.

From flawed, broken, and restored people, He makes beautiful music. Click To Tweet

The music is sweeter for it.

He uses broken flanges.  And, hammers.  And, center pins.  And, back checks.  And, dampers.  And. . .well, you get the point.  Even if you don’t recognize any of the parts, you get the point.

When it’s broken, He fixes it. (Jeremiah 30:17)

We make beautiful music together, don’t we?  For all of our brokenness and distress, the music is heavenly.

It was when the girls sang, too.

Heavenly.

 

                              

The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.
(Ernest Hemingway ~ American author ~ 1899-1961)

 

Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are Godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.
(Galatians 6: 1,2 ~ NLT Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. All rights reserved.)

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Not Home Anymore

It’s not really our home, you know.

I said the words jokingly—actually, only half jokingly—to a guest in our house the other day.

The visitor was visibly surprised.  We’ve lived in the house for a decade and a half, filling the walls with artwork we’ve chosen to fit our taste, and the bookcases with volumes to feed our souls.

The walls still seem to echo with the voices of our grandchildren and college students around the table.  If I listen carefully, I can almost hear the Lovely Lady’s mother’s musical laugh, her idiosyncrasies and stories far outlasting her years on this earth.

The Doxology still rings in the air, sung by voices young and old scattered around the little dining room.  And, before the strains of that beautiful old hymn of praise die down, one may be able to make out the joyful carols sung so many times over the years inside these thick brick walls. 

Many whom we love have crossed the threshold of this wonderful old house while we’ve resided here, a better home than I ever imagined it would be.  The welcome here was always warm, the food delicious, the fellowship all one could ask for.

That was then. 

Home is the place where even the host feels welcome, the retreat where the world is left behind at the door, even if only for a little while.

And God said to Paul and his Lovely Lady, leave behind this beautiful and welcoming home, along with the music store, your vocation and place of ministry for the last thirty years, and go to a place I will show you.  But, not yet.

But, not yet.

Am I comparing my circumstances to Abraham’s?  Really?  I tell you, there have been times over the last few months when I would have told you he had it easy compared to me.

All Abraham had to do was to obey and walk.  God showed him the rest.  Under the great oak tree at Shechem, God waved an arm around and declared that everything he saw was his.  Home.

I hope there is little need for me to reassure the reader I have no illusions about my importance in the grand scheme.  I’m well aware of the part Father Abraham had yet to play in the history of mankind.  

I understand the great faith it took for Abram to leave his family and country and travel, not knowing where he would end up.  I only make the comparison because this Hero of faith had merely to take one step after another until the Lord told him to stop.

A pilgrim no more, he would be home.  Home.

But, I’m sure many can identify with this unsettled feeling I have deep down when I look around me in this old house.  It’s not my home anymore.  Oh, my name (and the Lovely Lady’s) is on the title, but my home is somewhere else.

Or, it would be if I could leave here.  There are still a number of things that have to happen before I walk out the door for the last time.

So, I keep walking back in every evening.  I keep sleeping in (what will be) someone else’s bedroom.  I work in an office that will never truly be mine again.

I’ve got one foot firmly planted in the present, and the other poised to take the next step—to a different place entirely.

It should be time to close one chapter and move to the next.  Only, I keep reading the last paragraph again and again.

I don’t write these words to get sympathy.  Not at all.  I do wonder though, if anyone else can identify with how I’m feeling.

Anyone?

This unsettled feeling—this impatience and restlessness—I wonder, did our Savior ever feel it?

Earth was never His home.  He left His home to live here temporarily, before returning to His rightful home.  (Philippians 2:6-8)

He wasn’t welcome, didn’t get settled in.  He came to His people and they didn’t accept Him.  (John 1:11)  

He didn’t even have a place he wanted to call His own.  The birds and animals had homes, but the Son of Man didn’t even have a place to lay His head.  (Matthew 8:20)

He didn’t settle in.  He never got comfortable.  He was Creator of all that is and there was no place here for Him to call home.

The task for which He came still lay ahead of Him.  And, after that—home.  

Really.  Home.

And, after that—home. Really. Home. Click To Tweet

I’m realizing something, these days as I miss the home that was and look forward to the home that will be.  I’m realizing I’ll never really be settled-in there either.  It may be the place I reside for the rest of my life—or not.  Regardless, it won’t really be home, either.

Just as now, when I gaze across the bridge to the next place, in my heart, I’ll someday be looking across the river to that place, my last and final destination and feel the need to go home.

I may even wonder, as I do now, why I have to wait—why I have to keep one foot in the present and have the other ready to take that step into eternity.

For right now, I’d settle for simply taking the next step.

Just one will do.

For a start.

Leaving home—to go home.

 

And then it happens all at once and unexpectedly. That is how things happen, I suppose. You pack your bags and find yourself walking yourself home.
(Shannon L Alder ~ American author)

 

Abraham was confidently looking forward to a city with eternal foundations, a city designed and built by God.
(Hebrews 11:10 ~ NLTHoly Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. All rights reserved.)

 

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Summer is Passing

Church was full this morning.  Everyone sat a little closer together.  Everyone sang a little louder.  There were more hugs, and more laughter afterward.

It all makes me a little sad.

That didn’t come out right.  Maybe, I should explain.  

The church is full because the teachers and professors are returning from their summer travels, their mission trips, their expeditions to expand horizons in their own minds so they can do the same for their students.

Hmmm.  I seem to be making it worse instead of better.  

I want to be very clear.  I like the teachers and professors.  I really do.  It’s just that if they’re coming back, the students can’t be far behind.

Oh.  That’s no better either, is it?  

I love the students coming back, too.  Really, I do.  They fill the place with life and joy—optimism, even.

Let me give this one more shot, okay?

Their return (both teachers and students) means summer is almost over.  Even the weather this week belies the calendar.  Temperate days and cool nights have descended and rain has come back.

Oh, I know the summer weather will return with a vengeance.  It always does in late August and September.

But, the thought is planted in my head and I can’t shake it.  Summer is passing; already it’s nearly past.

And somehow, I feel like Alice’s White Rabbit clutching a pocket watch and muttering, “Oh dear!  Oh dear!  I shall be too late.”

I never did find out exactly what the nervous hare was worried about being tardy for, but still, I can’t help thinking I haven’t accomplished everything I should have.

I mentioned it to the Lovely Lady a few days ago and she reminded me of all we’ve done this summer.  I listened to her list and I had to smile.  We covered some ground—we did.  But, I wanted to do more.

I suppose it will always be that way.  A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, as Mr. Browning explained so well.  But, I fall short so often.

I wanted to do more—and better.

I think of all the time wasted believing it couldn’t be done.  You know—it.  Whatever the new thing in front of me was.

I’ve never done this before.  What if I mess it up?

I stood underneath the new ceiling fan with my son-in-law this afternoon and I had to laugh.  He was bemoaning the fact that he has no confidence in working with electrical wiring.  If he did, he would have a fan hanging from his ceiling as quickly as you could say downdraft.

I did.  I laughed.

Man, electricity is easy!  That over there—that’s what frightens me silly.  

I jabbed a finger at the kitchen floor I am currently trying to cover with vinyl tile.

I’m not exaggerating, nor am I bragging.  We purchased the materials for the job weeks ago.  I stood for hours staring at the bare sub-floor before I could bring myself to even open the first box of tile.

Hanging the ceiling fan took half an hour.  Less.

Yeah, but that stuff won’t kill you.  The electricity could.

I laugh at his logic.  He is right.

I like being in control.  I enjoy doing things which make me look good to the folks around me.  The problem is God doesn’t always give me assignments with which I’m comfortable.

When I want to stand in front of folks and speak of things with which I’m familiar, He tells me to climb under the house and repair the plumbing.

When I would rather repair a guitar with buzzing strings, He assigns me to pray with the man who’s just lost his wife of sixty years.

We waste a lot of time wishing He’d give us something else to do.  I know I do.

I spend my breath—the breath He put in my lungs—attempting to convince Him I could be so much more use to Him doing the same things I’ve always done.

Moses said, What if they don’t listen to me?  And God replied, Who do you think determines if people listen?  Or see?  Or speak?  I will give you the tools!  Just go!  (Exodus 4:10-13)

Here we are again at the small end of the year.  The hours of daylight are getting shorter.  

And still, I stand and argue my case.

How much time I’ve wasted.

Is there still time?  Yes.  With Sam Gamgee’s old dad, I’ve said it many times—where there’s life, there’s hope.

It’s just time to quit stalling.

Or, as we used to say in those ball games we played in empty fields at the end of days full of activity:

Get a move on!  The light’s going!

With the thought that summer might be running out comes a renewed urgency.  Not much time now.  Falling leaves are just around the corner.  Hot cocoa and all things pumpkin flavored.

To everything, there is a season.

I want to use the breath He gave me for the purposes He intended it for.  Today.

Use the breath He gave for His purposes. Do it today. Click To Tweet

What’s that in your hand?

It’s time to use it.  You might want to get a move on.

The light’s going.

 

 

We are not as strong as we think we are.
We are frail, we are fearfully and wonderfully made.
And, with these our hells and our heavens
So few inches apart,
We must be awfully small 

And not as strong as we think we are.
(Rich Mullins ~ American singer/songwriter ~ 1955-1997)

 

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.
(Ecclesiastes 9:10 ~ KJV)

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Sometimes, I Like Surprises

The Lovely Lady saw it first.  She usually does.

Look!  A surprise lily!

By and large, it is not the season in our part of the country for brilliant blossoms on plants, the bountiful spring rains having mostly deserted us in this sweltering summertime heat.  The ground is parched and crunchy—the latter being the sound the vegetation makes underfoot when one takes a shortcut through the yard.

But, sure enough, right near the driveway, where once there was a flower garden, the bare stem towers above the crunchy grass, gorgeous purple blooms standing proudly on top.

It is properly called a lycoris.  We just call them surprise lilies, when we don’t call them naked ladies, the latter a description, not of anything risqué, but of the way the stem shoots up from the ground bare of any leaves whatsoever.

Every year they surprise me, although I can’t think why.  Well, perhaps a reason or two will occur to me in time, but by now you’d think I’d simply mark my calendar.  Late July and early August—like clockwork, you might say—the various-colored trumpets poke their heads out.  Every year.

I would have told you it couldn’t happen this year.

Besides the dried up vegetation from the heat of the last few weeks and the lack of precipitation, which should have been enough to discourage their appearance, I did my part to guarantee this particular stand of lilies would never surprise me or anyone else, ever again.

I said they grew from the spot where once a garden grew.  Twenty years ago the flower garden held a prominent place in that yard.  It was tended by my father-in-law, who kept the encroaching weeds and volunteer trees— pin oaks, maples, and sweetgum, to name a sampling—from taking root where the roses and lilies resided.

Over the intervening years, the garden had become a tangled mess of weeds, vines, and trees, so we mowed them down.  Not only that, the volunteer trees were lopped off at ground level to make it possible to keep them under control for the foreseeable future.  

The flower garden was erased from the face of the earth.  Literally.  We thought.

To further ensure that the sneaky lilies never popped up unexpectedly again, although that wasn’t my express motivation, this past spring I spent hours with a mattock chopping out roots and stumps.  The ground around was pulverized—torn up like a war zone.  

No surprise lilies this year! 

Boy, was I in for a surprise!

The exclamation was no sooner out of the Lovely Lady’s mouth than I headed over to see this miracle for myself.  True, no more than a solitary array of blooms was visible, but I’ll wager tomorrow there will be three.

Out of the parched ground, covered in crunchy grass and weeds, the beauty from the hand of the Creator stands, proudly exclaiming its victory. 

Victory over me.  Well, victory over my doubt, anyway.

When all is dark and hopeless, light creeps in and taps us on the shoulder.

When all is dark and hopeless, light creeps in and taps us on the shoulder. Click To Tweet

Surprise!

I’m remembering a road trip many years ago through the Gila National Forest in New Mexico.  With the Lovely Lady and our youngsters, we had taken the scenic route after visiting Carlsbad Caverns on our trip west.  I had hoped to be off of the winding two-lane road before dark, but we had lollygagged along for too many miles, as we admired and exclaimed about the beauty of creation.

With foreboding thoughts, I watched the hot summer sun dip toward the western horizon.  We’d never reach the interstate highway before dark.  Never.

Sure enough.  We dipped into a valley as the sun dropped down on the western edge of the mountains.  Dark.

Then, we started up the other side of the valley.  I had no hope of seeing the sun again.  Still, there it was—shining brightly—until we dropped down into another valley.

Each time we topped the next incline, the sun was there as if it had been in view all along. Broad daylight.  

Every time we started down into another valley, it disappeared completely from view.  Darkness surrounded us, just like night time.

Finally, we came onto a sort of plateau, up on top.  In daylight, we saw the marking for the interstate highway up ahead.  In daylight—still—we turned onto the four-lane and drove off into the sunset.

It was a surprise every time the sun appeared again, a pleasant one.  I had been convinced we were staying in the dark for the rest of the curvy, two-lane road.  Every time, I was convinced.  I was wrong.

I like surprises.  That kind of surprise, anyway.

But, here’s the thing.  In very much the same way as I know the lilies in the front yard will pop up at the same time next year, I knew the sun was still there.  I knew it.  

Why was it such a surprise when the light shone on us again?

We let our dread overshadow the hope, the reality we know to be true.

We let our dread overshadow the hope, the reality we know to be true. Click To Tweet

Time and again, we descend into the darkness, believing we’ll never rise above it, ever again.

Can I make you a promise?  It’s not me standing behind the promise, but the Creator of all that is.

We who once lived in darkness are assured that the light—His light—will shine upon us. (Isaiah 9:2)  It is a certainty.

He is our sun as well as our protection from danger and is giving us every good thing constantly. (Psalm 84:11)

Why so surprised?

It’s almost as if we’ve come to expect darkness and gloom.  

But, in the darkest night, with the storm raging, His light guides and He gives peace.  Still.  

With a word, He calms the storms.  Still.

He who was before time began hasn’t lost any of His power.  He still holds all of creation together.  (Colossians 1:17)

Right down to those surprise lilies.

Right down to surprising us with light—precisely when we need it.

I like surprises.

You?

 

 

 

Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord, who rises
With healing in His wings:
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
to cheer it after rain.
(William Cowper ~ English poet ~ 1731-1800)

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Living in the Light

The ghosts in the old house have been disturbed and are keeping me awake.

No, not like the ghosts of movie fame—nor even poltergeists or apparitions in chains.  I mean those people who once were part of my life, but who only live here now in my memory.

Sometimes I wonder if I have awakened them, causing them, in turn, to interrupt my own sleep.  It’s only a thought, of course, not borne out by facts.

Still.  Here I am—awake.

I wrote of old light fixtures being made new to shine brightly the last time I shared my thoughts here.  Since then, something’s been niggling at the edges of my mind.  And, it’s not just the ghosts—although they have a good deal to do with it, truth be told.

I sat at a table in a restaurant with my children tonight, both adults, long since.  Showing them photos of the light fixtures we are putting back up in the house their grandparents lived in for most of their lives, I expected my offspring to exclaim about their memories of the fixtures.

They didn’t.  Not at all.

I couldn’t have told you that was on the ceiling in that house, Dad.

The other one nodded his head.

Never saw it.

How is that possible?  

Many hours of their childhood were spent in that house.  They played.  They worked.  They ate.  Surely, in all that time, those light fixtures were powered up and the light shone from them.  Surely.

I know it was so.  On any number of occasions, as we pulled into the drive to visit, the light blazed out from the windows, welcoming us in from the dark.

How could they not have noticed the fixtures?

As I consider the issue, a light begins to glimmer in my own brain.  In a moment, the notion is blazing as brightly as any of those ceiling lights ever did.

You see, on the first few occasions the light switch is turned on, if a fixture is particularly attractive, folks might notice and, perhaps, even be overwhelmed with the beauty.  But, after the process is repeated day after day, night after night—for weeks, months, years even—we forget about the light fixture on the ceiling and simply live in the light. 

We simply live in the light.

We don’t see the implement anymore.

We see only what is produced.  The thing necessary for life—light—fills the house.  Absolutely fills it.

And, that’s as should be.  

It is true in more than just our physical, everyday needs.  The light we require for our faith life is very much the same in the way it works.  

We are, indeed called to shine.  But, the purpose is that the watching world will see (and praise), not us, but the God who shines through us. (Matthew 5:16)

John—the one also called the Baptist, said it succinctly:  He must increase and I must decrease.  (John 3:30)

In the old house we’re taking the light fixtures which have kept the shadows at bay for the generation past, and are doing what is necessary to keep the shadows away for the generations in the future.

The same is true for the spirit life of our families and fellowships.  Saints of old, faithful in walking with the Savior, have lit the way for successive generations.  We can do no less than take up the same light and share it into the future.

Light from the past, shining into the future.

The light from the past is shining into the future. Click To Tweet

We’ll leave the light on for you. 

It’s not an original thought, and others before us have actually made the promise and kept it.  To do the same will take a lifetime of faithfulness from us. 

A lifetime.

It’s time we were started.

Flip the light switch!  

Live in the light.

 

 

Lighthouses don’t fire cannons to call attention to their shining—they just shine.
(Dwight L Moody ~ American evangelist ~ 1837-1899)

 

And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb is its light. The nations will walk in its light, and the kings of the world will enter the city in all their glory.
(Revelation 21:23-24 ~ NLTHoly Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. All rights reserved.)

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Basket Case

I had to take down all the old lights.  

It was weeks ago.  Since that time, every occasion upon which the light switches have been snapped to the on position has seen the lighting of a bare bulb hanging from the electrical box in the ceiling.

It’s not beautiful.

It is effective.  Light has filled the room each time, the fleeing shadows routed by their perpetual enemy.  There is illumination—in which to paint, to replace trim, to sweep up the dust.

It’s not a pretty light, though, the glare hurting the eyes and the bare bulb next to the ceiling drawing notice instantly to its spartan simplicity.

We make do.

Today though—today, I hung the old fixtures back up.  

Yes, you read that right.  The old fixtures.  

I wondered about that, too.  Weeks ago, when I pulled them down, I wondered aloud if they should be thrown in the bin, unwanted relics of years past.  It seemed they might be obsolete.  Better, more attractive lighting could be contrived, with the aid of a dollar or two and the local home store.

The Lovely Lady was certain.  The old fixtures would go back up.  Her confidence that they had many years of usefulness left wasn’t shared by her husband.  

I stared at the ugly pieces in my hands, ceramic mounts covered in multiple layers of chalky white ceiling paint.  The metal pieces were no better, the painters from years past having preferred to slap the paint-laden brush along them, rather than removing them from their boxes to protect the copper and chrome surfaces.

There was no hope.

I tried to talk the Lovely Lady out of her madness.  She would not be dissuaded.

I will admit, I put it down to her heritage, years of training in the art of salvaging and repurposing.  I assumed she simply wanted to save money.  (She has kept this old spendthrift solvent for nearly forty years now, you know.)

I repent. 

Today, I rehung the light fixtures.  If I hadn’t taken them down myself, I would have testified that the magical lady had replaced those ugly, worn-out pieces of ceramic, glass, and metal with new instruments of light-making.

The things of beauty I reinstalled today show no sign of fatigue, nor any of dilapidation.  They glisten and gleam, glass and brass shining even before the power begins to make the bulbs emit their energy.

I am undone.  

It is an argument I am happy to have lost.  (Don’t tell her I said that, or I’ll never be able to hold my head up near her again.)

The Lovely Lady knew those light fixtures.  They are the same devices which lit up the room in which she slept in a crib—the same ones which threw shadows against the wall as she and her sister played with dolls into the night—the same ones that cast their helpful light on her geometry homework and then her music as she practiced on the shiny silver flute.  

All those years ago, she knew them.  They are old friends that lit the night in her childhood.  It would have taken more than an unbelieving husband to convince her to part with them so summarily.

She knew.

I attached wires and tightened nuts and screws this afternoon, marveling at the change, the newness of the ancient things.  And, when all was prepared and the bulbs inserted, I flipped the wall switch.

Just like the first time it happened, seventy years ago, the shadows bolted for the corners and warm clear light flooded the newly painted walls.

And, the Master said,  “No one lights a lamp and then puts in under a basket, but it is placed at the highest place in the house so everyone is in the light.” (Matthew 5:15)

We are the light of the world.  

Wait!  What?

I gotta tell you, I’m in worse shape than those old fixtures were when they were removed weeks ago.  Dirty, crusty, and covered with layers of grime and paint, some of it put there by me, and some by others who didn’t like the look of me just hanging around.

I’m a mess.  And, then some.

I can just hear the conversation in heaven, can’t you?  You know, like in the days of Job.  

Satan has crept into the throne room and waited his turn.  His wheedling, shrill voice cracks the silence at last.

God, you know that old worn-out, dirty thing—that…that Paul Phillips thing?  He’s clearly not doing You any good.  How about you just dispose of him?  I’ll take him.  You know—one man’s trash, and all that?

And, then a strong, quiet voice speaks.  No, not the Father’s.  The Savior says the words.

He’s mine.  Bought and paid for, long ago.  The light of the world, that one is.  Mine.  There’s no trash here for you, you old deceiver.  Move on!

Who would know better the worth of the creature than the One who is Creator?

How would the One who stood and said, gazing at creation, new-made, “This is good,” ever stand and say, “Time to get rid of that trash?”

He knows us.  He knows what we’re made of. (Psalm 103:14)

He’s not afraid of a little dust.

Clean and shining, we stand before our Creator.  His light—shining in the world.  

In this place, that cannot, for long, stand the brilliance of His uncovered presence, we are His lamps to drive away the shadows.

Where once was nothing more than grunge, along with layers of gunk, we stand in His image, showing Him to the world.

Time to get out of the baskets.

For the Light of the World, we will be lights to the world.

For the Light of the World, we will be lights to the world. Click To Tweet

Beautiful light!

 

But hear my brethren in their darkling fright!
Hearten my lamp that it may shine abroad
Then will they cry-Lo, there is something bright!
Who kindled it if not the shining God? 
(From Let Your Light So Shine ~ George MacDonald ~ Scottish author/poet ~ 1824-1905

 

 

You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.
(Matthew 5:14-16 ~ NLTHoly Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. All rights reserved.)

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2017. All Rights Reserved.

The Lawnmower You Gave Me

I’ve never used a riding mower before.  I never had a lawn big enough to need one.

For most of my life, since I was nine or ten, I’ve pushed a mower to get the grass to a manageable length.  Back and forth, step after plodding step.  Leaning forward, hands spread across the push handle, row follows row until the task is completed.

It has always been a hot, tedious chore.

I have always been careful to say so too, after each session.  The Lovely Lady usually has a cold drink ready for me when I’m done and she stands there smiling as I complain.

The yard I mow now is done with a riding mower.  I sit down to do the job.  No more do I take step after step while following the roaring lawn implement.  I let the clutch out and the machine carries itself (and me) back and forth across the expanse of green, chewing up and spitting out all that exceeds the height I want to see when I’m finished.

What could be better?  Like day and night, the two methods are.  Or, are they?

Somehow, she still gets the same complaint from me at the end of the afternoon.

It’s a hot, tedious chore.  And yes.  I tell her so.

…and that seat just beats me up as it throws me from side to side over the uneven ground…

She smiles and hands me my cold water.

As I think about it, the red-headed lady who hands me my water is replaced—in my inner sight, that is—by another red-headed lady I loved—the red-headed lady who raised me.

She just looks up from her crocheting as she sits in her rocker and reminds me that I’ve always complained.  Always.

You’d complain if they hung you with a new rope.

I didn’t ask.  Sometimes, it’s just better to work things out on your own.  Maybe it had something to do with that other thing she always said about ropes.

Give you enough rope and you’ll hang yourself.

Nope.  No help there, either.

In time, though, I think I’ve worked out the new rope saying.  Simply put, it means we complain about the most absurd things at the most inappropriate moments.  It’s an absurd statement meant to point a spotlight at an absurd action.

The red-headed lady (the one who raised me) was right.  I do complain about ridiculous things when, in fact, they are the very things for which I should be grateful.

Leftovers again? Again?

Why are they coming to visit tonight?

I just bought gasoline for this thing last week!

If I have leftovers, I have plenty to eat.  More than plenty.  

When they come to visit again, be it friends, or grandchildren, or even the in-laws, I have companionship—a wondrous gift ill-suited for disdain of any sort. 

If I need to purchase gasoline again, I have had need of a vehicle and am blessed to have access to one—a luxury most in this world do not have.

I’m not preaching.  I’m not.  

Still, I am ashamed of myself, but I think I’m not alone.

It is some comfort to not be the only one.  Really, I think if I didn’t complain, then I might be the only one.  From the beginning, humans have complained.

The woman you gave me…the complaint Adam made, implying that if God had only had better sense than to burden him with Eve, everything could have continued as it was. (Genesis 3:12)

We’ve complained ever since.

The Children of Israel in the desert did it, again and again.  Moses did, too.  

Elijah hid in the mountains after an astounding victory and trotted out his accomplishments while complaining that He hadn’t been treated very well.  

Jonah preached a better sermon than Billy Graham could ever hope for, with appropriate accompanying results, yet he complained that God allowed the repentant sinners to live.

It wasn’t only the men.  Sarah suggested Abraham should take her servant as a surrogate mother, but then complained about the result of that relationship—so much so that her dutiful husband drove the child and his mother into the desert to die.

Martha complained that her sister was a slacker, leaving her to do all the important work.

I’m not the only one.  But, here’s the thing.  

I don’t want to be one at all.

Besides the infamous squeaky wheel, I see no lasting benefit to complaining.

It’s not what I want to be remembered for.  And, that’s just what the Apostle, my namesake, reminded the good folk at Philippi of—that they were the focus of their generation’s scrutiny.

Everything—every single thing—you do should be done without complaining or grumbling. Live exemplary lives, with nothing to criticize.  You are in full sight of the world, blazing like stars in the sky as you walk daily in the middle of sin-filled and perverse communities. (Philippians 2:14-15)

It’s not just complaining about the inconveniences of life he’s talking about, although given the nature of the creature, that seems likely enough. 

Implied is the directive that we shouldn’t mutter against the folks around us, both followers of Christ and non-believers.

Selah.

Complaining is proof of an ungrateful heart.  It is evidence of an unforgiving spirit.  

In short, it shows a heart unchanged by grace and love.

Complaining shows a heart unchanged by grace and love. Click To Tweet

My heart.  Ungrateful.  Unforgiving.

Unbowed.

I would not have it so.

I want to shine.  Like a star on the horizon, I want to blaze clearly and distinctly.

I think I’ll start by thanking the Lovely Lady for the cold water.  Perhaps the ride on the mower wasn’t as rough as all that, either.

All good gifts come from above.

It’s hard to complain when I’m saying thank you.

 

 

I personally believe we developed language because of our deep inner need to complain.
(Jane Wagner ~ American writer/director)

 

Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon.
Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.
(Philippians 4:5,6 ~ NLT ~  Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. All rights reserved.)

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2017. All Rights Reserved.

The Journey

I suppose not everyone is in a hurry in the world now.  Still, it certainly seems they are.

I’ve noticed it for a few years, but I think it’s worse today than ever before.  Most places, anyway.  Retail stores, internet websites, food establishments, banks—everywhere one looks, the world caters to folks speeding through life.

But, for just a few moments today—just a few—I found a slowing down place.

Our old friends met at the local steak house again this evening, annoying the waitstaff as we sat at the table long after the dishes had been cleared away, and troubling other diners nearby as we laughed loudly and told stories of family, life, and faith. 

Ah, friendship, that shares in the joys, and hardships, and triumphs of life.  Here, life slows to a crawl and time waits, if only for a few moments.

But even in this blessed pause, I felt the encroachment of hurry and impatience, at least momentarily.

Describing a trip out west they had recently taken, one of the couples suggested we should, if we ever had the chance, travel Interstate 70 through Colorado into Utah.  They both described the route in words that made us understand the breathtaking beauty of the towering Rocky Mountains which it traverses.  

But there, among the description of the beauties of creation, was the statement that reminded me of the harried pace of our lives.

And, when you reach Utah, the speed limit on the highway is eighty miles per hour.

It is, arguably, one of the most beautiful drives in our vast country, through some of the most picturesque vistas imaginable, and yet, folks drive through it as fast as they possibly can.

I stop to think about it for a moment, but everything has gone all white—and green.

In my mind, the Lovely Young Lady, red hair flying in the wind, and her skinny husband are cruising in the newly-painted old 1955 Chevy through the Ozark Mountains of southern Missouri.  The Alpine White two-door sedan motors smoothly through the green-covered hillsides, purring right along.

Slowly.  Really slowly.

It is the first road trip the old car has made in many years, indeed, the first road trip the young couple has ever made in it.  They are in no hurry.  None at all.

It was thirty-five years ago, but the memories are still so very distinct.

At no time on that long weekend did the beautiful old car top fifty miles per hour, and scarcely did we exceed even forty-five. We took our time, admiring the scenery along the road, stopping when we wanted, driving on when we were ready.

I remember sitting with our backs to a rocky bluff, on the footpath up above a noisy river, watching the fishermen below casting their fly lures, the weighted lines catching the sunlight and undulating in the air as they were flipped forward and back again and again.

Time seemed to stand still.

On that memorable weekend, all those years ago, we drove on nothing but back roads, never once entering the ramp to a freeway or divided highway.

But life moves on and we do, as well.  And, while we move, time seems to speed up, encouraging us to do the same.  

We listen and acquiesce.

On a recent outing to a town nearby, as we came off of one divided highway we had traveled at high speeds and approached the intersection of another, she reminded me of the tendency for traffic to jam up at the traffic light.

I know.  I’m turning onto the back road up ahead so we can avoid all that and still make good time.

Once, we took the back roads so we could take our time.  Today, we use them as shortcuts to get there more quickly.

I’d like to have more of those slow-down trips and fewer of the hurry-up ones.

And indeed, there are still days when we take the back roads, not to avoid the traffic, but simply to enjoy the drive.

 There are days we take the back roads, not to avoid traffic, but just to enjoy the journey. Click To Tweet

The Preacher suggested we would be better off if we did it more often when he said that eagerness without comprehension is pointless and hurry produces inferior results. (Proverbs 19:2)

Mr. Franklin said it more succinctly a few thousand years later.  Haste makes Waste.

There are things we should hurry to:

The aid of someone in need.

The side of one who is overcome with grief.

The assistance of a brother or sister who is losing sight of the prize.

But, all of life is not to be lived in a frenzy to get to the destination.  Rather we bless and are blessed along the way, as we take time to enjoy our Creator and our fellow man.

We bless and are blessed along the way. Click To Tweet

Eighty miles per hour is too fast to take in the astounding wonders all around us.

It’s time to ride the back roads again for a little while.

The journey is worthwhile.  There is great beauty along the way.

The destination is still out there.  Up ahead.

Patience. 

 

 

It is easier to shout “stop” than to do it.
(from The Two Towers ~ J.R.R. Tolkien)

 

But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.
(Romans 8:25 ~ NLTHoly Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. All rights reserved.)

 

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2017. All Rights Reserved.