A Prior Engagement

“They are engaged…”  I’m never sure, when I hear those words, if I need to wait to hear more.  You see, the word “engage” is far ranging, meaning anything from promising to marry someone, all the way to hiring a lawyer to dissolve the marriage.  We use the word for so many things.  It has impact in the world of mechanics as we speak of engaging the clutch, as well as any other pairing of gears together.  If we make an appointment, we have an upcoming engagement.  When the speaker at an event is especially gifted in holding the attention of his audience, he is an engaging speaker.  The list goes on and on.

I remember several years ago, a young man came to me and asked if he and I could meet at a local restaurant for a meal.  We made the engagement and met there on the appointed day and time.  As we ordered and waited for our food, we engaged in small talk, having no particular subject in mind to discuss at that time.  He proved to be an engaging communicator, regaling me with a description of his responsibilities as the mascot at the university basketball games.  He had been engaged to do that the year prior, and enjoyed his time in the costume, but realized that with his coming graduation, he would need to be engaged in finding a full-time job soon.  As the meal wound down, I could tell that he was a little nervous, but I waited for him to speak.  When he did get to the subject he wanted to discuss, it was almost as if he were afraid that he was about to engage an enemy.  I know that it can be a frightening thing to broach a subject with someone about whose response you are unsure.  As you may have guessed, he wanted to engage with me (at our lunch engagement) about an engagement of a completely different sort.  He wanted to marry my daughter!

I relate the event to you, primarily to illustrate the many meanings of the word “engage”.  It is quite a versatile word, and plays a very active role in our language.  You may have even noticed the most interesting thing about the word already.  There is something which is required for the word to work at all, from its use in meeting the enemy in combat, to hiring someone to do a job, all the way to promising to marry the love of your life.  The requirement for the word “engage” to function is that there be more than one person or thing which is involved.  A gear will never engage if there is no other gear with which it can mesh.  No pinion for the rack, or no flywheel for the clutch?  There is no engagement and no propulsion!  I cannot hire anyone  at all if there is no one who wishes to perform the task I have in mind.  No one who wants to sweep my floors?  I have engaged no one and the house remains dirty!  Even if I were an unrivaled silver-tongued elocutionist (which I am not), if there is no audience to stand before, I am not engaging in the slightest. 

I have to admit that I really like the word!  This one word reminds me that I need people, but also that I am needed.  As peanut butter needs jelly (okay, so some of you actually eat it alone, by the spoonful), and even as the Roadrunner needs Wile E. Coyote, there is no engagement without at least two people who are willing to participate.  The nice thing about some engagements is that they last for a lifetime.  The Lovely Lady and I began our engagement six months before a wedding almost thirty-four years ago and are still entangled today.  In contrast, the nice thing about some other engagements is that they are very short lived.  My interaction, many years ago, with a little dog that took a bite out of my leg springs to mind.  It was a never to be repeated engagement!

Well, I’ve engaged in this foolishness for long enough tonight.  I’m so glad that you also engaged in the process with me and have made it this far.   We’ll have to do this again soon.  How about next Monday?

We’ll call it an engagement then!

“Get involved.  You don’t want to look back on your life and realize that you successfully managed to stay out of it.”
(Robert Brault~American writer and columnist)

“…not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another…” 
(Hebrews 10:25~ISV)

 © Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Music To My Ears

It is a family tradition.  Tonight the matrons of the Walton clan (no relation to John Boy; and likewise not to that other well known family by the same name) got together one last time for awhile.  The Lovely Lady’s mother and her sisters have enjoyed another wedding in the family, but goodbyes are imminent and a meal with a little music afterward seemed as good a way as any to close out their time together.  When I mention the family tradition, I don’t mean eating, although they always do that; I don’t even mean the music afterward, even though it too is a common occurrence.

The family tradition which is the subject of my thoughts tonight is the activity which occurs immediately before the meal.  And, it’s not asking the blessing for the food, although that also has been done.  I refer to what happens just after the “Amen” is spoken.  One of the younger adults in the group hums a note and immediately the room is full of the sound of voices raised in harmony, as the “Doxology” is sung without accompaniment.  As the words, “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow”, begin, I realize once again that this family knows how to sing!  From the oldest, approaching her nineties, on down to the youngest twenty-something here, everyone participates.

Without any previous discussion, every vocal part is covered, from the sopranos who carry the melody, through the lower female voices singing out the alto parts and the upper men’s voices that fill the air with the tenor notes.  The basses are not left behind as their low, resonant notes blend with all the others.  I do see a raised eyebrow as one of them realizes that the starting pitch was a little lower than usual, so the root note is a little further down there than he is accustomed to.  Nevertheless, they carry the part admirably and the room is alive with voices, youthful as well as ancient, raised in harmonious thanks to a loving and beneficent God.

As the last note of the too-short song hangs and then dies in the air, there is a momentary quiet, a hush, almost of awe–not at the wonderful singing, but simply at the gift of making music together.  The silence is broken as a guest at the table, with us for the first time, says simply, “Wow!”  We smile, but inwardly I am nodding agreement.  Wow, is right.  I’ve been part of this family tradition for more than thirty years now and it never ceases to raise the goose-bumps or to bring the tears.  I hope it never does.

I don’t have any long-winded morality lesson tonight, no sermonizing to do.  I just wanted to stop for a minute and to share my blessings with you.  Too often, I am impatient to get to the point, to share my complaint, or to point you in the right direction.  That, I’m sure, will come again.

If I have any point to make tonight, it is simply this:  Enjoy the music as it happens; love the people who have been placed in your life; and don’t forget to be grateful to the Master of the feast.

Come to think of it, it’s as fine a three point sermon as I’ve ever preached.

“I will sing to the Lord, because He has dealt bountifully with me.”
(Psalm 13:6~ESV)

“Music speaks what cannot be expressed,
Soothes the mind and gives it rest,
Heals the heart and makes it whole,
Flows from Heaven to the soul.”

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.

Life On The Stage

The pizzeria was full, so we headed for one of the outside tables, to enjoy the evening breeze and the company outside, while waiting for a bite to eat.  At the next table, the youngster of about four years of age looked at me and then hid his face, whispering something in his mom’s ear.  A moment later, as we talked, his mom told me what he had said earlier, when he first saw me.  “Look Mommy!  It’s that man!”  His mom wondered what he meant by “that man” and asked him about it.  “You know.  That man from the stage at the church!”  We kidded about it for a little while, but the conversation started the wheels in my brain to turning.

The funny thing about the boy’s description of me is not that he is wrong.  Most of the time when he sees me, I am standing on the stage at my church, leading or participating in a song service.  The really amusing aspect of his statement is that his dad is the pastor, with whom I share the stage there.  In fact, he spends a bit more time on the stage than do I.  But, I dare say, if you would ask the young fellow who his dad is, he would have considerably more to say about his daddy than “that man from the stage…”

I chuckle as I think about the lack of scope in his young brain, remembering a person only in one place.  To his inexperienced mind, it might be possible that I actually live on the stage at the church.  Well, he never sees me anyplace else, so why should he have any other expectation?  After the lights are turned off, perhaps the people on the stage simply find a comfortable spot to await the next service, never leaving their roost on the stage, always in the place where he remembers them.  Sounds silly, doesn’t it?  But it brings with it some pointed questions–questions which touch fairly close to home.

My mind wanders to “Watership Down”, a novel written by Richard Adams, which I have read and re-read a number of times.  It is a fanciful, if not very cheery, account of a ragtag group of rabbits who flee their warren to escape a coming disaster, finding their way eventually, through many dangers, to a relatively safe place called Watership Down.  At one point the author describes, in detail, the down in the moonlight, reminding us that our natural thought patterns don’t make it easy for us to visualize a place in the darkness, but only in the daylight.  We believe daylight to be the natural condition of a place, not thinking that it is in darkness for nearly as many hours.  “We are not conscious of daylight as that which displaces darkness. Daylight, even when the sun is clear of clouds, seems to us simply the natural condition of the earth and air.”  The fact remains, however, that darkness is a natural condition of any place.  Simply because we don’t think of it that way does not mean it is not a facet of the place also.

I’m wondering tonight about how many people we fit neatly into a box, simply because we have always observed them in that box before.  A man utters words which I believe to be offensive, therefore he is offensive.  A mother snaps harshly at her child in the music store and I determine that she is a poor parent to that child.  I observe a man in a state of inebriation and assume that he is not a responsible human being, but is simply a drunk.  The homeless person is nothing more than just that–homeless.  No family, no feelings, and no worth to either me or society.  It seems clear that I am missing something here, doesn’t it?

There is much more to me than my ability to sing on the stage at church.  Yet, from that dear little child’s perspective, I am “that man from the stage”.  In reality, the offensive man probably has many other thoughts besides the ones that offend me.  The snapping mother also feeds and clothes her child and protects him or her from the dangers of the world.  The drunk is only that way when he drinks too much, but it is likely that he works and has a family, and possibly even believes in the same God as I.  The homeless person undoubtedly thinks and cries and laughs, and is embarrassed at his or her circumstances.  If I don’t see this, if I don’t consider the whole person, I am as naive as the little boy.  But, his viewpoint is caused by lack of experience; mine is caused by purposeful ignorance.  There is a difference.

Even though it seems a bit unnecessary, I will remind the reader that our viewpoint of our Creator is often just as myopic.  We see only the facet which we have experienced, doing our best to impress that aspect of our God on every other person we speak to.  Whether we believe Him to be Judge, Savior, Shepherd, Healer, Protector, Provider, or a host of other things which He certainly is, we focus on our experience and don’t seek out all of those other things which He wants to be to us.

The reason the boy at the pizzeria doesn’t see his father in the same light in which he sees me is that he has a different relationship to his dad.  He knows his dad; he just knows of me.  The knowing makes a world of difference.  And, as he spends time with his dad, his knowledge becomes more and more well rounded.  That’s the way it should be for us in our everyday relationships, too.  Instead of snap judgments, we need to be personally invested in the lives of those around us.  I’m confident that our perspective will change as our involvement does too.

This man on the stage thinks it’s about time that he go to his home and get a little rest.  A bed, after all, will be much more comfortable than sleeping on a hard pew in that big, empty church. 

“My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.  Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
(Job 42:5,6 NIV)

“There is none so blind as he who will not see.”
(Old proverb, first quoted in 1714 by Thomas Chalkley~Quaker missionary/preacher~ 1675-1741)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.

Searching For A Heart Of Gold

The price for the old trumpet in the pawnshop was three hundred dollars.  This old coot has been around the block a time or two and, realizing that the shop had probably only paid their customer something less than half of that, wasn’t going to pay anything close to the marked price.  Or, so I thought.

A while before, the phone had rung in the music store and a customer gave me a tip.  “Paul, there’s a pretty interesting horn in the hock shop.  You might want to look at it.”  Acquiring a description and even the model number for the horn, I determined that if the price was right, I would indeed like to have the vintage instrument.  When I finally arrived at the shop, I wandered around and jawed with the clerk for a few moments.  I don’t ever try to deceive people, but it seems that we usually are able to discuss sensitive matters, such as the cost of items, a little more productively if we have developed something of a connection beforehand.  Alas, that was not to be, this time.

I finally picked up the trumpet and examined it, finding it to be much as my informant had described it.  The bell section was a bright silver color, whereas the rest of the instrument was lacquered brass.  The bell had a few scratches in the silver, allowing a little brass color to show through, but that didn’t deter me in my ambition to own the old thing.  “I’ll give you two hundred dollars for this one,” I offered casually.  “Oh, no! I couldn’t sell it for that!” replied the clerk.  “My boss says he has to get the marked price on it.  The bell is solid silver, you know.”  He was sure that he had me.  The value of the silver alone would be greater than the asking price.  Surely, he was going to make this sale!  Calmly, I showed the young man the scratches on the bell of the horn, explaining, “If it were solid silver, this would be silver showing under here.  If brass is showing, it can only be plated, not solid, silver.”  Again, I suggested that my offer was a fair one, but the man would not be swayed.  “No, it’s solid silver.  I can’t drop the price.”  I shook my head and left the store.

I was reminded of the circumstance as I watched a television program about the pawn business this evening.  A gentleman had brought in a gold coin to sell, expecting at least to receive the going price for scrap gold.  In this case, the pawn broker was the one in the know, realizing that the coin was a fake.  The beautiful, “solid” gold coin was cleverly clad in a micro-thin layer of gold, but was practically worthless.  In appearance, it was very much like the genuine 22-karat gold coin you see pictured on this page, but the gold is actually only about a micron thick (a micron is one-millionth of a meter).  It was indeed a beautiful coin and the pawn broker mentioned that the genuine coin might be worth tens of thousands of dollars before breaking the news to the man that his coin was only worth a couple of dollars.  It was a copy, intended only to look good enough to convince people with more money than sense that they needed to own this beautiful item.  Unfortunately, its beauty is only in its appearance and nothing more.

I can’t begin to count the times that someone has informed me in the music store that the flute they own is solid silver.  I just point to the tenon, the part of the head of the flute which slides into the body.  Asking what they see, they will note that the metal is a different color where the instrument has been worn by use, being put together and pulled apart, over the years.  If the horn were solid silver, all that you would find under the surface of the polished silver is more silver, right down through the metal.  Silver after silver after…well, you get the picture.  You can’t scratch through it, can’t polish through it, can’t wear through it.  

I wonder if it is clear to the reader yet that I’m not really talking about coins and musical instruments here.  In my lifetime, I have been disappointed again and again to find that people I admire and believed to be genuine are only clad in beautiful material, but are not actually made of that material clear to the heart.  The saying “beauty is only skin deep” seems to apply here, but I want to make something clear.  What seems to be beautiful at first glance, and later turns out to be a facade, a deceit, turns ugly very quickly.  The coin in the pawn broker’s hand lost all of its appeal the instant he exposed it for the fake that it was.  The appearance had changed not one whit, but the realization that under the surface was an alloy of brass and copper changed my perception completely.  The same holds true of the people I have trusted, only to find that they were just fooling me.  But, come to think of it, I’m not really even thinking about other people tonight.

I know who I am.  No, not the surface me–the real me; all the way down to the core.  If you scratch my surface, you will get a real surprise.  You see, I have spent a lifetime constructing the outer appearance, the shiny outer material which people see everyday.  It might even fool the occasional casual onlooker.  But, the day is coming when that facade will be breached and all will understand that things have not always been as they seem.  The prospect doesn’t make me happy.

There is encouragement, though.  Our old friend, the Apostle (my namesake), reminds us that we are in the construction process right now.  Materials are being chosen, and the structure is going up.  It appears that the work continues until the day we pass from this temporal existence into the eternal one.  We choose the building material.  If we use shoddy material and accept second-rate workmanship, we’ll probably be in the majority, but that is of little comfort.  Good work takes time (and effort) and only then with the proper materials!

Well, I should think that you’ve had enough lecturing from me for one session.  While I’ve had a finger pointed squarely at myself, it is clear that the invitation to make sure of the quality of the building material is directed at every one of us.  I hope you’ll work at it along with me.

In the mean time, don’t take any wooden nickels–or gold-clad five-dollar coins, for that matter.


 “Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work.”
(I Corinthians 3:12,13~NASB)

“(Keep me searching
 for a heart of gold.)
You keep me searching
And I’m growing old.

(Keep me searching
for a heart of gold.)
I’ve been a miner
for a heart of gold.”

(“Heart Of Gold” [1972]~Neil Young~Canadian singer/songwriter)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.

All In

That looks like it’s good enough, Mr. Phillips.  I can’t see any problem there at all.”  The grimy mechanic looked up at me with a crooked smile.  The sledge hammer in his hand belied any attempt he could make at pretending to be a craftsman, but still, he wanted my approval.  All I wanted was to be out of that shop, so I muttered, “Okay.  I guess I can live with it.”  I backed the van out of the bay and started for home, exasperated.

I had ordered a new set of tires for my full-size van from a catalog store with the understanding that they had a shop under contract which would install them for me.  When I arrived at the tire shop with the radials piled up in the back of the vehicle, it was obvious that they were unhappy about the arrangement.  From their perspective, they would only be paid for the labor, but the catalog store had received all of the profit from the sale of the tires.  I wasn’t going to get red-carpet service here, that much was certain.  A little worried, I still left the van and told them I would be back later.  I came back to find the van still on the hydraulic lift, in the process of being lowered to the floor, but I could plainly see that the van was sitting a little oddly.  The vehicle reached the ground and I walked around to the passenger side.  The mechanic had placed the lift arms under the aluminum running board, instead of the frame, when the van had been raised and the force of all the weight had bent it badly.  The sledge hammer was their answer to my instantaneous outburst.

Still angry, I drove away from the shop.  One block.  As I attempted a left turn at the first corner, I felt the tire on the front right side move violently and I was suddenly sitting with the front of the van askew, one side visibly closer to the ground than the other.  I stopped in the middle of the intersection and turned on my flashers, glancing momentarily at the tire sitting akimbo to the hub, missing four of the five lug nuts.  Angrily, I stalked back to the shop and told them to get someone out there to fix the problem.  As the mechanic jacked up the front end of the van, the owner of the shop explained that sometimes the nuts worked themselves off as the vehicle was driven down the road.  One block!  One block, the van had been driven and the nuts might have worked themselves loose and fallen off!  Did he really think I had been born yesterday?  As I stood fuming, the mechanic spun the lug wrench one last time, with a flourish, and headed for the jack handle, declaring,  “I think that’ll be good enough to get you down the road now.”

I don’t do business with that shop anymore.  They contracted to provide a service for me and demonstrated clearly that they weren’t interested in performing that service.  There was no interest in excellence, only in getting by.  “Good Enough” was their motto.  I don’t like their motto.

I hope you won’t think that this is just a rant about a tire shop.  I’m not even angry with them anymore.  It’s just that it seemed wise to begin with the ridiculous, so we could contrast it with the ideal. 

I sat this evening with the Lovely Lady, and in between a nap or two, I watched portions of the Antiques Roadshow with her.  A little fifteen-second visual and a coincidental verbal comment by one appraiser grabbed my attention.  The lady had brought in a table built in the early twentieth century by a man named Gustav Stickley.  Mr. Stickley built a form of furniture known today as the Craftsman style.  The whole rationale behind the type of product his shop turned out was to push back against the cheaply made furniture which was rapidly taking over the market in the early days of the industrial age.  He wanted to make top quality furniture which he could be proud to put his name on.  At some point, he adopted a phrase which was stamped, along with his name, on all of the pieces his shop turned out.  It was just a short Dutch sentence, “Als ik kan.”  Simply put, it means, “all I can”.  The Stickley company expanded on that a little, making it, “To the best of my ability.”  Mr. Stickley wanted to be sure that every person who ever used something which he had built should understand that the artisan had done everything in his power to make that piece correctly and with skill.  There was no “good enough” for this man.  He was all in, putting his best abilities into every single piece of furniture he ever made.

I like that short phrase, “All In”.  If you care about card games, you know that you will hear that phrase when a player is confident that he has the best hand–so confident that he is willing to put every single dime he has on the table into the pot.  He risks everything on one hand, holding nothing back.  I’m not a gambler and have never actually played, but I like the concept of being all in.

I’ve also heard the phrase used to describe someone who is completely exhausted.  They have given everything they can to complete a task and have nothing left to give.  To their own personal detriment, they have exhausted their physical reserves in the performance of the deed at hand.  As they reach the end of their strength, someone observes that they are all in, having given all they can to finish the task.

I should be quick to point out that I am not speaking of perfection.  Some people work all their lives at a job and achieve consistency, but do not excel.  If they have indeed put everything they have into achieving consistency, they have succeeded in meeting the standard I am suggesting tonight.  As with all subjects, we should understand that there are differing levels of ability.  Less talent does not diminish the reward of working persistently toward the goal.  I am frustrated and even angry with both those who would discourage folks from excellence by hand-patting and consoling with an “at least you tried”, as well as with those who insist that trying isn’t praiseworthy.  “Try not. Do or do not do. There is no try,” states the revered Jedi, Yoda, in the Star Wars movie of several decades ago.  What a horrible philosophy!  We try, with everything that is in us.  If we are blessed to do, it’s that much better, but not all of our efforts will succeed.  We try anyway.

If you have a Christian world view, as I do, the reminder that we don’t do anything for ourselves or even for the acclaim of men, but for our God, gives a new and motivating perspective on everything we attempt.  How would we be anything less than all in?  Holding back is not an option.  Success doesn’t come with half-hearted attempts, but with a commitment to give all.  Could you be satisfied with anything less?  Will He?

What kind of hand are you holding?  I think it’s time to go all in.  How about it?

 “And do all that you do with all your soul, as for Our Lord, and not as for the children of men.”
(Colossians 3:23~Aramaic Bible in Plain English)

“There are only two options regarding commitment.  You’re either in or you’re out.  There’s no such thing as life in-between.”
(Pat Riley~former NBA player and coach)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.

Egress This Way

Exit Strategy.  Listen to the news or read a magazine and you’ll notice that the term is tossed around as if it is part of our everyday vocabulary.  Any news story about a modern war will include the words, used fairly often to criticize the planners and strategists of the conflict for their lack of foresight while involving their forces in a quagmire, a situation with no visible way of escape.  We have seen a number of conflicts for which the criticism seems valid over the last fifty years, not the least of which was the one in Vietnam.  It was, in fact, the situation for which the term “exit strategy” was coined, the epitome of a no-win situation.

I am usually impatient with trendy catch phrases such as this and try to avoid them as much as I can, but I found myself using the words the other day as I spoke with a friendly young man I’ll call Chip.  He was waiting for me as I unlocked the door to my business that morning.  Chip has been a regular customer for a few years and we’ve developed a closer relationship than I do with many of my clients.  I like to talk (the fact may have escaped you), as does Chip, so our conversations have gone deeper than the simple mechanics of the transactions which have transpired between us.  He had a surprise for me on the day to which I’m referring, though.

He needed an item and I sold it to him, after which we gabbed for awhile.  As we reached the end of our banal dialogue, the young man dropped the bomb.  “Hey, if you ever decide that you’re ready to move on to something else, I might have some interest in running a music business.”  I’m not sure if my mouth hung open long enough for him to notice, but I really wasn’t sure how to respond.  It wasn’t that I have never wondered what I’d do if someone offered to buy the business; it’s just that no one ever has before.  Chip wasn’t making an offer, but he certainly was earnest in his interest.  “I haven’t really worked out my exit strategy,” I stammered out.  We talked a little about what would have to happen and I told him just before he headed out the door that it would probably be quite awhile before I was ready to be put out to pasture.  I’ve had a little time to consider things since then.

Tonight, I’m still thinking about my exit strategies.  I’m not a young man anymore, having just passed a birthday which I somehow feel is significant.  At fifty-five, a number of establishments consider me a senior, eligible for their discounts on goods and services.  I’m still a ways from the legal age of retirement, but the mind wanders a bit towards the goal of being a little less tied down.  Maybe it is time to start thinking and planning my escape…errr…exit, from the business I’ve run for the last twenty-seven years.

While I’m talking about the age I attained recently, I can’t help but remember that evening about twenty years ago when a dear friend of mine, who was celebrating this same auspicious birthday, commented about the prospect of being middle aged.  Being young and tactless, I asked her how many people she knew who were one hundred and ten years old.  She wasn’t really amused.  Right now, I’m not nearly as amused by it as I was back then.

Now, where was I?  Oh yes!  Exit Strategy.  I won’t bore you with the details of what will eventually happen with my business.  I’m really more interested in the other ramifications of the term “exit strategy”.  The experts in most fields tell you that you should know how you’re getting out before you actually get in.  Every spy and adventure hero I’ve ever watched in the movies knew before they went into a situation how they were going to extricate themselves.  At the very least, they looked for the back door, to be sure there was an avenue of retreat.  It might behoove me to find the way out while I’m still able.

But, as I think, I realize that this is true for so many different areas in life–things about which we seem to avoid thinking until it’s too late.  You may be surprised to find that having no specific strategy is in itself a strategy of sorts.  A poor one, but still a strategy.  We don’t have as much say in the process, but we are making choices.

There are so many facets to this subject, including the areas from which no exit strategy is acceptable–marriage, parental responsibilities, care for our parents.  Other facets will spring to your mind.  I do wonder, however, if we have considered the one final exit strategy which we will absolutely not be able to avoid.

I’ve been reminded again and again, as time marches on, that our time on this earth is limited.  We don’t know that limit.  The obituary list in my local newspaper the last few weeks has included old people in their eighties and nineties, and middle aged folks in their forties.  There has even been a teenager or two recently.  We have no guarantee of anything past the moment in which we live, right now. 

Just as I have been reminded that I might be wise to plan an exit strategy soon for my business, I would suggest that we also would be well advised to make exit plans for our ultimate departure.

The words on my old clock seem to be apropos tonight.  “Tempus Fugit.”

What’s your plan?

“Time and tide wait for no man.”
(St. Mahrer~1225 AD)

“…it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes the judgement.”
(Hebrews 9:27~NASB)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.

Hard and Soft


The sound of the Acme Thunderer whistle pierced the heavy evening air from a couple of blocks away.  The two boys playing “Stretch”, their version of Mumblety Peg, looked up momentarily and quickly went back to tossing the pocket knife at the ground near their opponent’s foot, trying to make him stretch his feet so far apart that he fell down.

“That was only once,”  the younger boy, always a master of the obvious, proclaimed as he moved his left foot over to rest next to the knife buried in the hard, dry dirt beside him.

“We’ve got a few minutes still,” replied the other, confident that he could win this game well before the next blast of the whistle split the air.

For a few moments, it appeared that he would do just that, but the next five minutes sped by before the boys knew it and the sound was repeated.

This time, there was a second blast which followed as quickly as the echoes from the initial burst of sound died down.  Two times!  The boys scrambled to retrieve their Case knives from the soil and wiped them on their pants legs as they shot out of the field where they had been playing and through the orange grove, headed for home.

They had barely a minute to get there! 

The first time the whistle had sounded was supposed to be a warning, letting them know that they should start home.  If they weren’t home within sixty seconds of the double blast, they were in big trouble.  From the sound of it, that had been their dad plying the little silver policeman’s whistle and he was a stickler for the deadline.

Out of breath, both of them shot through the screen door and into the living room with just a few seconds to spare.

Whew, made it!  

Everyone else was already home.  Seated around the living room, they looked a little impatient as the two youngsters burst into the house, but one of the older boys suggested, rather brusquely, that they sit down too.

“Daddy’s going to read to us,” he announced imperiously.

And, for the next twenty minutes, their ears heard nothing else but the sound of their father’s voice as he read to them of the wacky adventures of the Sugar Creek Gang and the blue cow.

It was a regular evening ritual for them, even though it was sometimes their mother who read.  Dad was more fun to listen to, as he changed his voice to read the spoken parts from the different characters and got excited right along with them as the blue cow broke through the fence and charged a couple of the boys at their fishing hole.

When the chapter was finished, he closed the book and started to put it away.  The kids seated around the living room clamored for another one, but he seemed inclined to refuse.  It wasn’t often that he could be convinced, but tonight was one of those times, because it only took a few moments of cajoling.

Finally, he said with a grin, “Okay, just one more chapter.  It’s not a school night anyway…”

Hard and soft.  Sergeant Major and doting daddy. Disciplinarian and loving mentor.  They were all descriptions of my father.

Only a disciplinarian could have come up with the idea of a whistle to call his children home at night.  He would neither have his children wandering the neighborhood after sundown, nor go in search of them himself, as many other parents did, calling their names impatiently into the darkness.

A suitable whistle was acquired and the rules were carefully explained.  Children were not to touch the noise-maker.  When a single blast from the whistle was heard, we were to start for home immediately.

If we did not get there soon enough, the double blast would follow.  There was one minute to be home after that and that deadline would be enforced, with dire consequences to follow for anyone who dared to be tardy.

But the same authoritarian man who thought up the unique method for summoning his offspring from their far-flung locations at curfew shared his love of reading and learning with us.  He would bend the bed time rules to allow us to finish a long chapter (or maybe two) we were engrossed in, and always was ready to help with a pronunciation or definition.

The same Daddy who split the air with the imperative sound of the whistle loved to let us take turns standing on his feet and hugging his waist as he walked through the house.  I know now that it was the same purpose that drove him to be all those things to us.

The role of a father is to be hard; hard enough to help wayward children grow up into able and caring adults.

The role of the father is also to be soft; soft enough to show concern and love, so that his children grow up knowing that they are protected and cared for.

For this erstwhile juvenile delinquent turned responsible father and now, doting grandfather, his efforts were successful.  His example helped me to achieve a modicum of success in carrying on the process myself.

Time will tell how successful my efforts have been and you’ll have to speak with others to get the full story there, but there can be no argument that our fathers help to bend and mold the fathers their sons will become.  Would that more fathers took their responsibilities as seriously and with as much thought.

As I write tonight, my mind is carried back to the evenings when I read to my own children.  I’m not sure if I achieved the success with making the characters come to life that he did, but those evenings are among some of my fondest memories.

With my kids, I felt the terror and joy of Aslan’s story, and the sadness as Charlotte the spider died, but relief as Wilbur escaped becoming bacon.  We laughed and cried throughout, mirroring those times many years before, when I had done the same with my siblings and parents.

And yes, there were also the Sergeant Major times, the moments when the disciplinarian showed his face and made his demands.  While not nearly as pleasant in memory, those times were just as important in the formation of the mature and responsible adults we are blessed to enjoy today.

I probably didn’t say it then, as my children were growing, since my mind was taken up with the enormity of the task, but today I breathe a prayer of thanks for a father who showed me how a father loves but also lays down the law, dotes but also demands discipline.

I have seen the end result of homes where it was all one way or the other.  Disaster would be a kind word to describe it.  Like most areas of endeavor in life, balance achieves the best outcome.

Hard and soft.  Two sides to one man.  I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Thanks Dad. 




“I talk and talk and talk, and I haven’t taught people in fifty years what my father taught me by example in one week.”
(Mario Cuomo~former Governor of New York)
“A righteous man, who walks in his integrity–How blessed are his sons after him.”
(Proverbs 20:7 NASB)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.

A Leg Up In The World

What I see

Dinnertime.  My job, while the Lovely Lady does her amazing magic in the kitchen, is to set the table.  The whole family will be here soon, along with a couple of extras, so I need to get busy.  As I head for the china hutch, I seem to remember some little contact with a couple of black monsters in the backyard a few moments ago, so a trip to the washroom seems to be in order.  I flip on the light switch and stand over the sink, first pumping a bit of soap on my hands and then rinsing them off, as I lean down to reach the water rushing from the faucet.  A moment of drying on the hand towel nearby and I’m off to do my work.  It is a routine I find myself repeating any number of times every day.  And it is routine…for me.

Their perspective

Some time later, dinner ready, the little urchins are ready to head for the table.  It appears that they have played for awhile on the swing set and don’t seem to be in pristine condition, so they are routed through the bathroom to repeat the process of de-griming which their mother undoubtedly put them through prior to their arrival here.  After a few moments of scuffling and verbal complaints, I glance around the corner, to realize that the little ones are in the dark still.  One of them is about to remedy that by climbing up the ladder-like ceramic handles of the drawers to the side of the lavatory, but quick action averts that disaster-waiting-to-happen.  Now, I’m not mentally slow, but this is slightly confusing.  I washed my hands in there only minutes ago and had no problem reaching either the light switch or the faucet handles, or even the soap dispenser.  What is going on here?  Oh, yeah!  These guys are a bit shorter than I, so they seem to have a slightly different context for achieving the same objective.  From their viewpoint, what was to me a routine, simple task has become almost insurmountable, with the possible exception of the adventurous climber among them.

We have a decision to make.  Do we pick them up and hold them as they remove the soil from their hands?  It will be a lengthy, and quite possibly, a damp task which will have to be repeated multiple times.  I don’t relish the thought.  Perhaps, we could just leave them dirty.  A little dirt never hurt…No, probably not a good idea.  They definitely need to wash.  The solution is near at hand.  Many years ago, my late father-in-law, as his custom often was, stopped by a garage sale on his way to the music store.  When he arrived at work with the little red stool in hand, his explanation for the purchase, as usual, was that it was a bargain.  No other explanation was ever given; never mind that there were no children around to use the old thing.  Now, with belated thanks to an absent great-grandfather, the stool is once again pressed into service, aiding the vertically challenged imps in their quest for cleanliness.

What a simple solution!  We don’t have to do the job for them, nor are we required  to allow them to remain filthy.  There is no purpose to berating them for being unable to reach the equipment, and no profit in lecturing them on the advantages of being taller.  To assist the youngsters in achieving the goal, we merely give them a leg up, so to speak.  They only require a little help to do what is necessary.  And, we have the means to aid them.  The result, instead of confused and dirty children, or angry and dirty children, is a group of happy and clean kids, ready to dig into the Lovely Lady’s delicious dinner.

I am often struck at how the simple things, the everyday events, speak so powerfully to deeper truths.  As I consider the little ones and their dilemma, I can’t help but look in wonder at the parallels in our adult world.  Skilled laborers encourage as apprentices struggle to match the prowess of their mentors.  Teachers rack their brains to develop tools which will catch the imagination of their students and help them to progress.  In our churches, it should work in the same way.  It doesn’t always.  Frequently, we hear of mature leaders who berate those in the early stages of their walk for not living up to their standards.  How foolish!  Just as the example of the children, a little patience and a little help can go a long way toward motivating achievement.

For many years, I have been pleased and proud as customers have brought their guitars and violins to me to tune.  I once thought that it was a tribute to my ability, but I have been thinking in recent years that my willingness to perform that most basic of tasks again and again for aspiring musicians is actually a stumbling block to their advancement in the art.  I still tune for them, but now I subtly show them the shortcuts and techniques which I have used for most of my professional life.  It doesn’t cost me anything, but it benefits them immensely.  I could continue to perform the easy process for them, but they need to be able to do it for themselves.

How about it?  Do you have a little red footstool stored away somewhere?  Get it out and put it to use!  Do you have abilities, the secrets of which could benefit others?  Chances are good that you’ll be able to make someone’s life better by sharing your secrets.  Coincidentally, it doesn’t hurt any that in the process you make your own life easier, too.

Now, if I could just get those kids trained to set the table for me…

“This little stool is mine,
To use it all the time.
I reach the things I couldn’t
And lots of things I shouldn’t”

“On the contrary encourage one another, day after day, so long as To-day lasts, so that not one of you may be hardened through the deceitful character of sin.”
(Hebrews 3:13~Weymouth New Testament)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved. 

Quick To Listen

“Hey!  Your speakers aren’t working right!”  The young man talking–yelling really–was at a music concert.  He had made his way through the noisy crowd, back to the sound booth, where the lighting controls and the house sound-system modules were stacked all around.  There was row upon row of sliders and rotary knobs, along with a snake-pit full of wires coming from, and going to, who-knows-where.  The fellow operating the controls was grinning with delight at the sound blasting back at him from the stage.  He continued sliding one control from left to right and back to the left again as he looked up at the patron.  “What did you say?” he shouted, cupping his hand to his ear.  “I said your speakers…Wait a minute!”  The concert-goer turned his back momentarily to the technician and listened to the sound resonating from the equipment onstage.  Turning slowly back to the sound man, he muttered, “Never mind.” and, spinning around, began the tortuous journey back toward the front of the hall.

Well, were they working or weren’t they?  The sound technician wondered.  He was using a system which the designer claimed to be state of the art.  The brand new stereo mixer had been recently incorporated with the power amps and he had tested all of the other components himself as the band was preparing to play earlier in the day.  As he looked at the retreating back of the troublemaker, he slid the balance control again from left to right.  No, it was working perfectly.  The sound moved in a cool pattern as the slider made its side to side transit.  First blasting forth from the center as the balance control rested there a moment, it moved with liquidity to one side and slid in a wave over to the other.  What a cool effect!  How had they ever done events before this great stereo sound system?

As the sound continued to wash over him, he absent-mindedly noticed the fellow dropping back down into his place at the front right side of the auditorium.  In that instant, the realization of what was happening dawned on him.  The sound booth was located in the room more than halfway back from the stage.  The speakers were working perfectly to him because he was centered between them.  The fans around him heard exactly what he did and were likely pleased with the mix.  To the concert goers on either side and close up to the stage, however, the speakers were only working half of the time.  From their seats, they only heard the speakers directly in front of them.  When the sweep of the sound moved to the opposite side, all they knew was that the speakers weren’t working momentarily.  To them, there was something wrong with the equipment.

He stopped sliding the balance control and left it dead center for the rest of the concert.

Have you ever attended an event and later, hearing a review of it, wondered what event it was that the reviewer attended?  It happens to me frequently.  I hate a movie, but the critics think it was better than “Gone With The Wind.”  A music columnist pans a new artist’s album as “unoriginal and tired”, while I definitely heard “fresh and exciting”. Disparaging comments are made about a sermon and I wonder who said the things those people claim to have heard from the preacher’s mouth.  I certainly didn’t get that!  It would seem that perspective has a lot to do with what one sees and hears.

We spoke recently of ensemble and blending with others in the community.  I recognize that the reality of achieving harmony is not always as easy as one could wish.  Unlike those playing musical instruments, we can’t just push in or pull out a slide or two and then be careful to follow the markings in the music.  We may all be in one place, but we have certainly arrived here by disparate paths.  The events and environments of our past have shaped us and helped to form our perspectives.  If we wish to live in community, we must be able to see past our own personal territory and look into the surroundings of those with whom we wish to be in accord.  To quote a trite saying, we may just have to move out of our comfort zone.

The concert goer who was convinced that something was broken had to move from his place to be able to comprehend what was happening.  He may have been annoyed as he sat down again, but at least he understood that the equipment was functioning as it should.  The sound technician had to mentally put himself in the place of the patron to understand what the audience was hearing, and even though the equipment was functioning perfectly, he realized that his responsibility was to the crowd and he abandoned his demonstration of technical prowess and equipment superiority.  They both moved out of the place they were in to comprehend what the other was experiencing.

Much more could be said, but it would be extraneous.  Your minds have already grasped the lesson of the concert and will shortly be applying it to situations which I could not hope to think of.  I have a few of my own where application is waiting.

Sometimes walking in the shoes of someone else can take us to a place of revelation.   

Just be sure to give the shoes back when you’re done with them…

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry..”
(James 1:19 NIV)

“Life is like riding a bicycle.  To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”
(Albert Einstein~German-born American physicist~1879-1955)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.

This Standard Should Be Automatic

“Pop the clutch!  Do it now!”  The exasperated screams were coming from the rear end of the 1966 Ford Falcon, where three teenage boys and a forty-something year-old man were now running as they pushed the white car down the road.  Inside the vehicle, the driver refused to follow their directions, encouraging them vocally to “push faster”.  Frustrated and confused, the hapless crew struggled to comply.

It was a hot afternoon in the early 1970s and the old worn-out car had refused to start for the young lady, the fiancee of the boys’ older brother, as she headed for work.  Dead battery!  She would be late for work if they took the time to recharge it, and there was no money for a new one.  Her father-in-law-to-be suggested that they could give her a push start.  It was, after all, a standard transmission.  They could easily get the car rolling fast enough to turn over the engine.  Perhaps, they should have communicated their expectations for the process a little more completely with the young lady before they headed down the road.  Perhaps.

The fellows were winded by the time there was any further response from the driver’s seat.  Finally, their shouts rose to such a pitch that she could no longer ignore them.  Dropping the transmission into first gear, the clutch was engaged and the motor caught and started immediately.  The car shot ahead of the exhausted group (Yes, the pun was bad…and intended)  One of the boys almost fell, as the resistance he had felt a moment ago was suddenly absent, but he caught himself before tumbling down completely onto the burning pavement.  The others slowed to a stop and stood, gasping for breath in the hot Texas sun.  As they stood in complete confusion, the young lady circled around to stop beside them.

The questions were hanging in the air instantaneously.  “What were you thinking?”  Why would you make us run that far pushing this pile of junk?”  “Seriously?  Two blocks?”  The poor girl didn’t know how to respond.  She could only stammer out her answer.  “But you never got over thirty miles per hour!”  A silence fell for a second or two, as the group turned that one over in their heads.  The  man asked the next question, “What are you talking about?”  Now, she was confused.  “But, I thought you had to push a car over thirty before it would start.”  Again, the group mulled it over.  Then, the same thought occurred to all of them at the same instant.  “That’s for an automatic transmission; not for a standard!”  Although, it is no longer true, some of the older cars from that era (in the fifties and before) with automatics could be push started, but only by using another vehicle and then at a high speed.  It was definitely not the case for the standard shift cars, which could start at any speed faster than a dead stop, provided the pushing power was enough to turn over the engine.  She had expected them to push her car over thirty miles per hour on foot!  Seriously!

It was many years ago.  We still laugh about it.  Just last week, we sat together and introduced the story to another generation of the family.  They didn’t really understand it.  It doesn’t matter.  The old folks laughed and laughed at the picture of the guys panting behind the jalopy as it whizzed silently up the street.

Of course, the fun memory aside, you realize that there is an important lesson to draw from this event.  On this day, it was someone else, not me making the error, but it has been a besetting problem for me all of my life.  I acquire a little knowledge about a subject and then determine that I must be an expert.  The young lady in the above incident was absolutely sure that she had her facts straight.  Transmission in first gear?  Check.  Clutch pushed to the floor?  Check.  Speed at thirty miles per hour?  Not yet.  Maybe a little encouragement will help…”Push faster!”  What a letdown, to find that one little part of the scenario was in error.  It is embarrassing to realize that the wrong application of a perfectly good piece of information leads to discomfort or pain for others.

Some time past, a fellow who was involved in an organization in which I also participated, did something I thought he understood we hadn’t approved.  My reaction was immediate.  Speaking with others in the group, I insisted we had to confront him.  Surely he did this intentionally, to demonstrate his own sense of purpose!  Notes flew back and forth, mostly from me, until a couple of days later a young man who was also part of the group suggested that a private conversation with the man might be helpful.  Within hours of their conversation, I received a visit from the man.  He was in tears as he apologized, realizing that he had offended, albeit entirely unintentionally.  The realization of my own error hit me immediately and it hit me hard.  Within moments, my tearful apology had also been made. 

I would like to be able to take back the multitude of times I have committed similar offenses.  I cannot.  I would like to have the angry, accusatory words back.  They are gone beyond recall.  Much like the young lady in her car, tempers have cooled; forgiveness has been granted.  The memory, however–that will last a lifetime.  It is, at least, a slight motivation to be sure of the facts ahead of time, and to be careful of the application of these facts.  Things are not always as they appear.

A little knowledge can, indeed, be a dangerous thing.  We need to either become smarter or learn to keep our mouths closed tightly.  Since I can’t seem to be able to achieve the latter, I’m working a little harder on the former.

I’ll let you know how that goes.

“It is better to be silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”
(attributed to President Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain, among others)

“Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.”
(Colossians 4:6 NASB)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.