I didn’t know what to do.  

It was the second time in as many days that I was stumped to determine my next move.  The customer had been waiting for a couple of weeks for the parts and subsequent repair to the set of speakers he needed for his sound system.  He has a job this weekend for which he must have the system operable.  I had made him a promise.  “We’ll have it up and going today.”  I was, of course, depending on the delivery service to fulfill their promise (which they did) and was also assuming that I would have the time to effect the necessary repairs to the units (which I did, barely).  I was also depending on having made the correct diagnosis regarding the remedy for the issue (yeah…not so much).  I was still assembling the magnet on the speaker as he walked in the front door.  He was understanding and agreed to hang around until I could finish.  With the task completed, I reassembled the complete unit and, we plugged in a guitar to try it out.

It was a complete failure.  The anemic, distorted noise coming through the newly rebuilt speakers was nothing like the clear, punchy music we had expected to hear.  Quite obviously, there was something else wrong which I had failed to take into my calculations.  We were a sorry pair; me–the shopkeeper, needing to make a sale, but falling short of the mark and he–the customer, realizing that the necessary equipment for his performance this week was further out of reach than it had been when he walked in the door.  Neither of us had a clue as to our next step.

As I sat there on the speaker cabinet, I breathed a prayer for clarity of thought.  It may be no coincidence that in that instant, my eye was drawn to another speaker cabinet nearby and a thought hit me.  “Hey!  Did you know that I’ve got the matching cabinet to the speaker I sold you a couple of months ago?  Just this weekend, I bought it from the guy who built both of them.”  As he examined the speaker cabinet, the twin to his, his face brightened.  “I think this will work just as well as those would have!  Can I afford it?”  We negotiated a fair price, he purchased some peripheral items, and he went out a happy customer, thankfully, my last one of the day.  I was drained, emotionally and physically.

I said it was the second time I had been in the situation recently.  The first time was a little more frightening, but in a way, the result was the same.  We were about to finish up the singing time in our Sunday morning service.  The people had learned a new song and we were going through it one more time, to keep it fresh in our minds.  The congregation had done their part well and were singing enthusiastically…“For all your goodness, I will keep on singing.  Ten thousand reasons for my heart to find.”  In the middle of that phrase, I (along with most people in the church) had our eyes drawn to a strange movement in the center of the building, just behind the front row.  A young man, barely in his teens, leaned, turning as he toppled and smacked the concrete floor hard.  We kept going for a line of two more, but most had stopped singing and soon, the worship team did that too.  For a moment or two, the place was silent, as the health care professionals who were in attendance worked on the young man.

Photo by Leland Francisco

I didn’t know what to do next.  For a long moment we stood and then, I was praying into the microphone, asking for wisdom for the workers and a healing touch from the Great Physician.  It certainly wasn’t an eloquent prayer.  I’m not sure I know how to do eloquent. But, in just another minute or two, the boy was up and being helped out of the worship center to rest in privacy.  We were to learn later that he is going to recover just fine.  For a few moments there, it was a scary time.

Several people assured me that I had done just the right thing.  And, they’re right.  What they don’t understand is that, just as I did today when I was at the end of my wits, praying is the natural reaction for every human being I know, when confronted by a brick wall in front of us.  When we get to the end of ourselves, we turn to the One we know understands, the One who can actually do something about our circumstances.  Prayer is an admission of sorts…an admission that we are powerless and that we need help.  The difference is that believers know to Whom they are speaking in those moments.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time and ink here contemplating the effects and the benefits of prayer.  There have been volumes and volumes written on the subject.  There are even scientific studies which have undertaken to prove or disprove the benefit of prayer.  Certainly, there are other facets to prayer than the emergency, crisis-mode pleas described above.  All I’m saying today is that, when confronted with these kinds of situations personally, I would be paralyzed without a way to communicate with my Creator.  And, I am grateful.

I’ve never been great at thinking on my feet.  I need time to consider, time to weigh, time to revise and extend.  Some situations don’t allow for that.  It is a good thing to have One nearby who doesn’t need the time, but simply the opportunity, to act.

We’re in Good Hands.

“There are no atheists in foxholes.”
(attributed to Ernie Pyle~American war journalist~1900-1945)

“Funny how it seems I always wind up here with you;
Nice to know somebody loves me.
Funny how it seems that it’s the only thing to do;
Run and find the one who loves me.”
(from “Rainy Days and Mondays~ performed by Karen Carpenter~American vocalist~1950-1983)

“You’re rich in love, and You’re slow to anger
Your name is great, and Your heart is kind
For all Your goodness I will keep on singing
Ten thousand reasons for my heart to find”

(from “Ten Thousand Reasons (Bless the Lord)~performed by Matt Redman~British vocalist)

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

Open Door

“Mr. Blankenship, I wonder if you could install a switch for the dome lights in the station wagon.  I don’t like driving with my door open.”  My dad and I were inside the ancient corrugated tin building where the old gentleman had his declining business.  The outside of the huge metal door had the words “Blankenship’s Auto Service” painted on it, but the letters were barely legible.  That was the way I remember the old fellow too…fading into retirement, one broken-down car at a time.  He knew cars though, and his work was cheap enough.  His establishment wasn’t a regular stop for us, but the way cars were built back then, it certainly paid to know a cheap mechanic.

As we awaited his answer, an image flashed into my mind of the recent trip we had taken through Kansas and Illinois from our home in the southern tip of Texas.  There were quite a few hours of driving in the dark and, with five kids in the car, plenty of reasons to need light on some subject or another.  As we drove down the road, Dad would pull up the handle on his door, easing the door open an inch or two until the dome light was illuminated.  With light enough to see and the wind whistling in our ears, the crisis would be dealt with and he would push his door open a bit further and then pull it sharply closed.  Later, when we got back home, he had another small mechanical problem and, like any thrifty person, he was going to be sure and take care of all the problems in one fell swoop.  Thus the question to the mechanic about a switch for the dome light.

Mr. Blankenship looked at my father in surprise.  “What’s wrong with the factory switch?”  he queried.  Now it was Dad’s turn to be surprised.  “Factory switch?  Where’s that?”  The old mechanic reached a greasy hand through the open driver’s window and turned the headlight switch counterclockwise.  Immediately, the dome lights were lit, with every door on the car still closed.  Dad was shocked.  “How long have cars had that feature?” he asked.  I thought for a second or two and remembered the old 1957 Ford station wagon before this 1965 model, and the number of times it had been driven down the road in just the same manner as this one had on that recent trip.  The old fellow looked into the air for a minute and thought, then replied, “Oh, I think since the mid-50’s.  It probably tells you about it in your owner’s manual.” 

All those years.  There was never any need at all to do the contortions necessary to hold the door open at just the right position, and no reason to take the chance of being in an accident while speeding down the highway.  All it took was the flick of a switch.  Nothing more.  On.  Off.  Light.  Dark. 

He hadn’t read the owner’s manual.   You know what they say about the fruit not falling far from the tree.  It kind of makes me wonder what I’ve missed.

As I write, I find myself seeking some way around the obvious application to us and our lives today.  I’m pretty sure that it can’t be avoided.  So, I think I’ll quit while I’m ahead and echo the words of the Teacher to his students when He said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” 

It does seem that it would be a shame for us to figure out, too late, that there were features of this life, about which we could only have learned if we had read the Owner’s Manual.

Ah!  I see the light coming on now…

“Your word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path.”
(Psalm 119:105~NLT)

“He couldn’t pour water out of a boot, if the instructions were written on the heel.”
(Anonymous Southern idiom)

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

In Defense of Staying Up Late

As I took a “sick day” from writing last night, I found myself, while attempting to escape the concentration required in writing, reading from an old set of books containing the works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  It will be a long term commitment to complete all of the material contained therein.  My attempt to escape intense cerebral acrobatics failing miserably; I went to bed still with the headache which precipitated the evening off.  Regardless, I am happy to report that the late night study was not in vain.  I found myself surprisingly refreshed emotionally by, not only the poems I read, but also by the editor’s notes before each new grouping of selections.

Imagine my surprise (and delight) to read a note the poet himself wrote to his editor and included with a poem he was submitting for publication.  The note said that it was completed and prepared for submission at three thirty in the morning, and then finished with the words, “…and now, to bed.”  While I neither aspire, nor anticipate the opportunity, to achieve the greatness of Mr. Longfellow, I am emboldened in learning of his similar nocturnal literary labors.  For some reason, the creative flow in my brain seems to begin in the late night hours and continues on until the wee hours of the morning, but is virtually non-existent in the daytime.  I will count myself in good company as I continue my lonely toil through the time when most of my readers are abed.

I know that many consider the night a time of fear, of retreat behind safe walls (and for some, with good reason), but for all of my life, the night time has been a time of discovery and of education.  Certainly, there were times when I was a child that the darkness was a time for misdeeds and mischief.  The darkness offered cover for acts of meanness and trickery, and I took the opportunity more than once.  But the memories I have of learning and of awe in the darkness far outweigh those childish acts.

I have always had a love of reading and that love pushed me to spend most evenings after the sun set, and well past bedtime, deeply absorbed in any book I could get my hands on.  Some were read by the light of a luminescent praying hands nicknack which had spent the previous hours in the light fixture absorbing the energy needed to light up the space under the blankets.  Others were read while hiding in the closet and closing the doors to prevent the tell-tale beams from alerting the authorities downstairs.  The reading material was wildly varied.  Orwell’s “Animal Farm”,  Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power Of Positive Thinking”, and “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” by Richard Bach were all read and questioned in the reading.  My reading material was usually considered in light of the Bible, which was also frequently on my reading list.  Then, just for fun, all of the Oz books were consumed by my fertile brain, followed by as many Tom Swift and Hardy Boys volumes as I could acquire.  I even read the Nancy Drew books, drawn to them after first reading “By the Light of the Study Lamp” by the same author.  The edition I read was one of the first 1930s era volumes, by then musty and brittle, but still fodder for a curious mind.  Books opened the path for imagination and the highway to learning.

There were a few nights that found me lying on the roof of the carport, the vantage point reached by crawling surreptitiously from the window in a dormer of the attic bedroom I shared with my brother.  Lying half on the flat gravel and tar roof, with my torso and head inclined onto the pitched shingles of the attached wash house, I reclined and considered the stars and the brilliant moon, imagining the possibilities that those vistas opened up to my young mind.

But, the music!  In those days of AM radios, sunset was the time when the low-powered local stations would go off the air and the “clear channel” stations would step up their power to beam to far-away places.  Exotic places like New Orleans and Chicago, cities only dreamed about in the hours of daylight, would stream their programs into my ear by way of the single ear bud, and I would be carried away.  On Saturday nights, from Nashville, the Grand Old Opry would bring the world of hillbilly and country music to me over the miles.  Then the stereo world of FM radio took my universe by storm, bringing such diverse styles as Deep Purple and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

It may be that I was just designed to enjoy the night time hours, or possibly a lifetime of breaking the rules has lead to this as a punishment, but I’m working at making the most of my opportunities.  I’m thinking that, as with many things, we needn’t be concerned so much with the peripherals, the time of day, the darkness, but with what we achieve with it.  Sleep is good (and necessary), and I do sleep.  But, I love the times of quiet and of space to dream and imagine, as well as to consider more serious and weighty matters.  And, the night has plenty of those times.

I found, as I read last night, some words that seem almost to be written to me and anyone who wants to impact their world.  In his “Voices of the Night”, Mr. Longfellow penned some autobiographical words about what influenced his work.  You’ll find an excerpt below.  The admonition to teach from our experiences and acquired knowledge seems to be apropos to our time, even though penned a century and a half ago.

And I can’t leave you without one slightly facetious thought that keeps intruding on my serious considerations.  My mind wants to leap to a verse in Ephesians that reminds us to take advantage of every opportunity.  The author of that book reminds us of the reason for his instruction…”Because the days are evil.”

“…and now, to bed.”

“Visions of childhood! Stay, O stay!
Ye were so sweet and wild!
And distant voices seemed to say,
“It cannot be! They pass away!
Other themes demand thy lay;
Thou art no more a child! 

 Look, then, into thine heart, and write!
Yes, into Life’s deep stream!
All forms of sorrow and delight,
All solemn Voices of the Night,
That can soothe thee, or affright,–
Be these henceforth thy theme.”

(from “Voices of the Night” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow~American poet~1807-1882)

“I will love the light, for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness, because it shows me the stars.”
(Og Mandino~American Essayist~1923-1996)

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

Heroes In The Strife

I trust that you’ll pardon a departure from my normal fare today.  Not feeling well last night, I opted for some reading, instead of writing a new post.  I was inspired by some of the wonderful poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and thought that you might spend a moment with me in consideration of truth, communicated in verse.

A Psalm Of Life
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

(What the heart of the young man said to the psalmist)

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
“Life is but an empty dream!”
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
“Dust thou art, to dust returnest,”
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act, – act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time; –

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labour and to wait.

From “Longfellow’s Poetical Works”
Copyright 1893
Henry Frowde, London

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

In The Corner

They put me in the corner the last time we met.  Yes, me…the French Horn player.  Our little brass ensemble was practicing for an upcoming performance and our usual venue for rehearsals was unavailable, so we squeezed into a small space at another local church.  And I–I had to play with the bell of my horn facing directly into the corner.  I can almost see the communal shrug as each of you reads this and wonders, “So what?” 

Playing in an ensemble, as I have mentioned before, requires that we listen.  Listen to the group; listen to our own sound.  I usually play into open air, with the bell of my horn facing behind me. All of the sound I hear is ambient sound.  I don’t detect the notes exactly as they are emitted from the bell, but instead the air in the room and nearby walls reflects it back gently.  I like the way I sound in the middle of the room.  The corner?  Not so much.  As I played at the rehearsal, I could hear every mistake, every hesitation, even every slightly out-of-tune note, plainly.  The corner captured my exact performance and returned it to my ear instantly and at full volume.  It wasn’t really that pretty.


For some reason, as I write this, I am back on Mr. Cox’s farm in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.  Dad and the older brothers are standing  with him at the barbed wire fence talking about the old man’s latest Brahman bull acquisition and speculating about how mean the big fellow really is.  I, after a moment or two of interest, become tired of the subject and wander off, to explore a nearby grain bin.  These galvanized storage buildings fulfill many functions for different farms, holding seed for the farmers who are preparing to plant crops, as well as storing the crop itself in the fall, but Mr Cox simply uses them to protect his hundred pound bags of cattle feed  and a few mineral licks from the greedy bovines and the weather.  As I open the door and peek in, I make a noise and immediately hear the strange, reverberating echo of the sound.  “Hey!” I exclaim.  The word comes back to me several times, almost like Fat Albert of Bill Cosby fame, but more softly than the original,  “HeyHeyHey”.   I am bored no longer!

I step fully into the grain bin, closing the metal door behind me.  It is dark, but my young eyes quickly adjust to the dimness and notice rays of light filtering down from the cone shaped ceiling.  Within moments, I am in full voice inside the little storage building, as I sing, “To God be the glory, great things He hath done.  So loved He the world that He gave us His Son.”  At first, I am impressed by the big sound of my voice, and sing even louder.  Then, I start to notice something.  I can hear things more acutely.  My voice cracked there for a second;  that last note was really out of tune.  So I hit it a time or two more, “…done…done…done.”  Within a moment or two, I am satisfied that I have figured out the pitch and move on to the big finish, “…And give Him the glory, great things He hath done.”  Only tonight do I finally imagine how the racket I was making sounded to those standing outside the building.  Inside the building though…inside the building, the sound was astounding!  I was a great singer!  Well, after I fixed the intonation, I was a great singer.  And, the voice crack stopped happening for the moment.  (It would get a lot worse before it finally got better.)  The bouncing of the sound off the walls and ceiling in that little building was a wonderful tool…to teach…to encourage…to embolden.  It happened over forty-some years ago and I still remember the song and relive the astonishment as I recall the experience.

As I come back to the present, I start to think that the corner of the little church is no less of a classroom for me.  The horn is not at fault for my bad notes and intonation problems; I am.  As we practice for the next hour, I make adjustments, playing softer here, being careful to tongue the notes properly there.  Always listening to the others along with myself, I make the necessary corrections to be a part of the ensemble.  Aside from very tired lips, at the end of the practice time, I am pleased with the result.  It is a lesson that I will remember.  I just needed a little reminder that I don’t always sound as good as I think I do.

What made the difference in both of these examples?  I needed a mirror for my sound.  In the grain bin, the hard metal sides of the building directed the sound right back to me and let me hear what I really sounded like.  I remember it as an intensely satisfying, but educational experience.  The same could be said for the corner in which the horn was played.  Sound waves which were normally lost to the ear were directed right back and gave evidence of problems.  Was the corner fun?  No.  I didn’t really want to play there.  Was it beneficial?  Time will tell if the results are long-lasting, but it was certainly helpful for that session.

“I want to bounce something off of you.”  I take those words more seriously these days, when I hear them from a friend, understanding that the speaker is concerned that his thoughts about an issue need to be subjected to a process roughly like the sound mirror described above.  When we operate in a vacuum, so to speak, we start to lose perspective, we begin to think that we are invulnerable and need nothing beyond our own authority.  It is the wise man who seeks advice and looks into the mirror of collective wisdom. 

“I want to bounce something off of you.”  A customer said those very words to me this morning and we talked about this local musician’s ideas for sound amplification at an upcoming engagement he has scheduled.  It is a bit ironic that his idea, if implemented, would have resulted in the bouncing of sound around the venue in such a way to cause uncontrollable feedback in the sound system.  He was happy that he has spent the time and made the admission that he needed another point of view.  The performance will almost certainly go better because of our discussion.

How about it?  Are you a Lone Ranger?  Don’t need anyone?  Life goes much more smoothly when we have companions along the way to offer perspective.  It’s not always what we want to hear, but when we heed wise counsel, we avoid a lot of unnecessary noise and jumbled results.  I’m glad to admit that I know many wise people who can offer just the right feedback at precisely the needed moment.  You probably have some of those too. 

It may be time for another visit to the grain bin soon.  I’m probably about due for a tune-up.  You can tell me if it helps…

“Praise the Lord, praise the Lord.  Let the earth hear His voice!
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord. Let the people rejoice.
Oh, come to the Father through Jesus the Son
And give Him the glory, great things He hath done.”
(“To God Be The Glory” by Fanny J Crosby~American poet and hymn writer~1820-1915)

“If you have a good friend, you don’t need a mirror.”
(Bente Borsum~Norwegian actress)

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

The Fallacy of Reptile Physicians

Dewy-winged dragonfly at dawn. (click to enlarge)  Photo: Jeannean Ryman

The aging woman ambled beside me through the dew-covered grass toward the orange trees, her slight frame dwarfed by my lanky six feet.  She wanted a few oranges to juice for herself and the old man waiting on the front porch.  He was himself a large man, easily tall enough to reach the fruit she needed, but the disease we now call COPD (then, just emphysema) had stolen away his ability to walk any further than from one room to the next inside his home.  Even though she couldn’t reach very high into the trees, with a grandson or two just across the street, it wasn’t much trouble to get help when they wanted to enjoy the sweet, fresh-squeezed juice that the annual crop from the nearby trees yielded.

As we headed into a stand of unmowed grass, I noticed a look of apprehension on my grandmother’s face.  Her eyes were fixed on a flying insect a number of feet away and it was obvious that she was not happy to see it there.  As we continued on our course, the first insect was joined by a second, flitting and performing aerial acrobatics some seven or eight feet away from the first.  Grandma stopped dead in her tracks.  “Snake Doctors!  If they’re around, there’s a snake somewhere around too.  I’m going back to the house.”  She spun around and headed for the back steps with much more vigor than she had evidenced on the way out.  I chuckled and continued on with the bowl she had shoved into my hands, soon filling it with the sweet colorful fruit that grew prolifically on the trees.  I finished the job without seeing a sign of any snake.  The pair of dragonflies cavorting nearby certainly didn’t seem too threatening to me.  I had always liked the queer insects.

When I again joined the pair in the house, my grandmother explained.  “I hate snakes!  And, those snake doctors, those dragonflies, are a sure sign that a snake is around.  They are always near snakes.”  I didn’t want to be impolite, so I waited until I got home to laugh out loud at her foolish words.  In fact, a couple of years later, when I joined the Citizen’s Band radio craze, I chose as my on-air pseudonym, my “handle” as it was called, “Snake Doctor”.  Can’t you just hear it?  “Break one-nine.  This is the old Snake Doctor, looking to get a smokey report.  I’ve got the hammer down and coming your way…”  The vernacular was sillier than the name, by a wide margin, but I still took a lot of ribbing because of that handle.  

It wasn’t until a few years later, as my intellectual curiosity grew, that I realized that my grandmother wasn’t alone in her belief that the dragonfly was not to be scoffed at.  Indeed, the legend in the southern United States has it that these evil creatures actually stay near snakes so that they can sew them up if they are injured.  They are called by one foreign culture, “Devil’s Needle”, and by another, “Eye Poker”.  In South America, the phrase applied to the unfortunate bug is “caballito del diablo”, meaning “the Devil’s Horse”.  Also, much like our southern lore, in Great Britain the Welsh name for the insect translates to “Adder’s Servant”.  In fact, the very name “Dragonfly” evokes frightening imagery, as if the legendary fire-breathing creature has been miniaturized and embodied in the so-ugly-it’s-beautiful insect.  It is, even today, a much maligned insect…one might even think, a dangerous one.  They couldn’t be further from the truth.

This speedy flyer (one of the fastest insects known) is, in fact, a predator, but it eats flies and mosquitoes in huge quantities, helping the human race in an amazing way.  In Myanmar (formerly Burma), the native people have “seeded” the water with the larvae of the dragonfly for generations, understanding that the result was a crop of predators who would help to control the yellow-fever carrying mosquitoes.  The one group of people that does have a valid beef with these speedy, winged insect traps is the beekeepers.  The larger families of the dragonfly have been known to catch and ingest their fair share of honeybees.  That said, they don’t attract snakes and certainly don’t cure them, don’t attack horses and give them diseases as the Australians averred at one time, they almost certainly aren’t used by the Devil to weigh man’s soul as Swedish folklore teaches.

We humans don’t seem to be very adept at determining cause and effect.  The dragonfly is often found near the tall grass at the water’s edge where snakes also happen to frequent.  For some reason, that makes the two species close allies.  The folks in Australia observed horses jumping and stamping in obvious distress at the same time that dragonflies were flitting about.  It is probable that the dragonflies actually were eating the small parasites which were, in reality, tormenting the horses, but the poor “Horse Stinger” got the blame.  The very shape of the body makes the insect the target of disdain and fear, but perhaps the same could be said of my own body when viewed through the eyes of other species.  We jump to wrong conclusions, based on inaccurate assumptions again and again.  The result is a bad rap for an immensely beneficial species.  Fear and animosity are passed from generation to generation, and truth is a victim, as is the persecuted dragonfly.

You do realize by now, that I’m not really talking simply about an insect, don’t you?  Just as I have, you have also seen the individuals, persecuted and maligned by society, their lives made a living hell because of hearsay and conjecture.  They were seen coming out of a certain building; they were observed handing someone a package; they talked to the wrong people.  Who knows?  They just might not wear the right kind of clothes, may not have the right haircut, perhaps don’t even bathe as often as they should.  They are “not like us” and therefore dangerous to our way of life.  Perhaps, they speak a different language, have too many junk cars in their yard, or paint the trim on their houses the wrong shade of green or yellow.  The list goes on forever and it becomes clear that we’re no better at judging humans than we are at judging insects.  

At some point, we need to realize that we might, just might, be using the wrong criteria.  It is obvious that on our own, we have no clue whatsoever.  If you would perhaps allow me to make a suggestion, just one–I would like to propose that we use the original owner’s manual.  Try as I might, I can’t think about this problem without believing that the Teacher had this in mind when He suggested…no, insisted…that we love our neighbors in exactly the same way that we love ourselves.  It is, after all, the most important rule given besides loving our God with everything we have within us.

That’s it.  No convoluted recovery plan.  No mission and purpose statement.  Love others like we love the person in the mirror.  You know what you need to do to put the instructions into action.  Now might be a good time to get busy on that, if you haven’t already done so.  Tell someone about it, too.  Just about the time they start to whisper a juicy tidbit in your ear would be a good opportunity to share it.

I still love dragonflies.  They are amazing, beautiful creatures.  Well, okay, I’ll admit that if you see a close-up of their eyes (all thirty thousand of them in those compound goggle-looking things), you could possibly be freaked-out.  Still, what astounding design and purpose, all wrapped up in an odd and peculiar package…

Almost like…well…like you and like me, huh?

“It is the peculiar quality of a fool, to perceive the faults of others and to forget his own.”
(Cicero~Ancient Roman scholar and statesman~106 BC-43 BC)

“Stop judging, so that you won’t be judged, because the way that you judge others will be the way that you will be judged, and you will be evaluated by the standard with which you evaluate others.”
(Matthew 7:2~ISV)

(Special thanks to my childhood friend, Jeannean Ryman for the use of her amazing photograph today.  Jeannean has a gift for seeing the beauty in the ordinary and then giving us a glimpse.  This and many other wonderful examples may be viewed at if you are interested.)

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

The Burned Hand Teaches

The little one was screaming.  At the top of her lungs.  Her brothers continued their play.  They assumed that as usual, she had been frightened by some bug or that she was angry about a toy she wanted, but couldn’t have.  Her big sister, on the other hand, had seen what happened and ran to get Mama.  “She hurt her hand.  I think the metal thing is hot.”

Sure enough, the little tyke had burned her hand on the galvanized tub we use for bathing the black monsters in the back yard every week or so.  The dogs are bigger than she, so today when one headed toward her, she thought that a higher vantage point might be helpful and attempted to clamber up on the upside-down tub, laying her hand on the metal surface which had been sitting for hours in the bright sunlight.  With temperatures in the low one hundred degrees, it was hot enough to sear her palm in seconds.  Mama quickly brought the screaming little girl in and attempted to run water over the hand.  She never got it near the water as the screaming got louder.  No amount of imploring could convince the girl that the water not only wouldn’t increase her pain level, but would make it better.  Her grandma, the Lovely Lady, quickly packaged up some ice in a plastic bag.  No dice.  She wasn’t holding that in her hand!  Grandpa tried to get her to put her hand on the side of an iced tea glass.  Still no luck.  She was sure that if she touched anything at all, it would hurt worse than it already did.

I burned my own hand pretty badly just a few weeks ago.  I immediately turned the faucet on and ran cool water over my hand, graduating to holding an ice cold glass for the next hour until the pain subsided.  Because of my experience, I, along with every other adult present, tried to convince the little tyke that the cool water would help the pain go away, but she would have none of it.  After long, agony-filled minutes dragged out, she was finally convinced that it wouldn’t hurt to hold a cool, wet dish rag in her hand.  When she headed for home, she was still crying.  It will take a while for the blisters on her little hand to heal.

In the meantime, as she was being tended to, her siblings were sent outside to play again.  I went out to be with them until time for them to leave.  I walked out of the back door to find her older sister, the one who had witnessed the accident, on top of the overturned tub herself, jumping up and down on it.  “I’m not touching it with my hand.  I can’t get hurt!” she bragged.  In my mind, I could see her slipping and falling onto her hands and knees any minute, or worse…with the backs of her legs coming to rest on the blistering hot steel, so I insisted that she get down immediately.  She was not happy.  Sure, her sister had been hurt, but this girl wasn’t going to touch it with her hands.  She pouted as she headed for the swing set to participate in some less daring activity.

You know, I see adult truths in the shenanigans of my grandchildren time and time again, and the events of this afternoon were no exception.  Through no fault of her own, the sweet little girl had burned her hand.  The bigger problem arose when she refused to accept a treatment that would have saved her much anguish.  I don’t tell the story to fault the little girl.  She doesn’t know any better yet.  I am however, aware of a good number of adults who do know better, but who won’t listen to sense when they need help.  You don’t need me to give any examples.  Look around you.  You might even want to take a look in the mirror.  We are stubborn people, demanding our own way, and taking it at great personal cost, refusing instruction and aid, even when we could benefit immeasurably from them.  You can certainly fill in the blanks here.

The other lesson I gleaned this afternoon was from the second girl, as she gloated in her invincibility.  She had immense faith in her physical prowess.  There are times when that faith is well founded.  She is a healthy, agile child.  Most of the time.  That said, I saw her fall off her tricycle just moments before the whole affair began, with no one nearby to cause the mishap.  Accidents do happen, and to tempt providence is never a safe course of action.  She knew that her sister was in terrible pain, but she still was willing to risk that pain herself while placing faith in her limited abilities.  Of all the adult attitudes this puts me in mind of, the quote comes instantly to mind, “That could never happen to me.”  We see others discovered in foolish positions, or caught in catastrophic behavior and we think that we can “play with fire” so to speak, without any chance of falling into the same trap.  There’s a warning in the Bible which fits quite aptly here, when we recall that it tells us, “Let him who thinks that he is standing, be careful that he doesn’t fall.”

I think the little one is going to be okay.  It will be one of many such lessons she will have to learn as she grows.  I would love to be able to help protect her from the pain of lessons like this.  I would love to be spared the tears I shed as I thought again this afternoon of her anguish.  But, if she truly learns by her errors, she will be better off.  We too have Someone who is touched by our pain and who desires nothing but good for us, but who still allows us to suffer in the hope that we will learn and grow. 

I’m pretty sure that it would be a good thing if we could avoid both the error and the arrogance of each little girl, respectively.  I’m also just as confident that I’ll probably be jumping on the upside-down tub soon, myself.  If you see me doing it, you might at least warn me of my danger.

You never know;  I might listen…this time.

“Gato escaldado, del agua frìa huye.” 
(“If the cat has been burned, it runs away even from cold water.”)

Pride goes before destruction,  a haughty spirit before a fall.”
(Proverb 16:18)

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

Dead Men’s Bones

I did my homework.  The online auction was for an oil painting by a listed California artist.  The woman had exhibited and won honors at the California State Fair in 1890.  The date on the painting was 1889, so it is likely that this very picture had been included in that exhibition.  I had been looking, as usual, for a new and interesting painting of a bridge to add to my collection, but this intrigued me.

Women artists were not common in the nineteenth century, nor were they likely to win any awards with their work, being deemed “not serious” artists.  The painting obviously did not include a bridge, but it was a beautiful, nearly monochromatic painting of a hazy, almost foggy, nature scene, a wonderfully detailed lake with little waves lapping up against the rocky bank, and tall trees rising from the water’s edge in a gnarled stand of trunks and leaves.  The artist had even incorporated a little-used technique which imitated a frame, and then painted a stand of wildflowers in front of that, making it appear that the picture was almost three dimensional.  I wanted it!

As I always have done with the online auctions, I waited for the last possible moment and snuck in a bid with no time left for others to raise theirs. It’s a trick called “sniping” in the auction world.  I suppose the name comes from “picking off” the competition before they even know you’re there.  I’m sure that some other poor bidder was unhappy to lose the painting at the last minute, but in retrospect, I might have been happier had he won.  Regardless, the money changed hands and the painting was on its way to me.  I awaited its arrival with anxious anticipation.

A time or two while I was waiting, I went back to the auction page online to view the photo of the painting again.  Over the week it took for the package to traverse the countryside, a feeling of uneasiness began to grow.  I kept looking at the small photograph provided in the auction and wondered about a strange object  I had noticed on the side of the lake in the painting.  When first I saw it, I thought that it was just some brush, perhaps a windfall of some small saplings which the artist had included in the scene.  The photograph was small and not completely in focus, so I just couldn’t tell.  Ah well, no matter.  It was a listed artist!  It would be well worth my expenditure and my wait.

The painting finally arrived.  I cut open the package and carefully removed the protective covering around the frame and the very well executed painting.  It was everything I had thought it would be.  I loved everything about it.  The water was skillfully done, the technique with the wildflowers, exquisite.  The trees were…well, trees.  And, the Native American burial…wait a minute!  Native American burial?  That’s not what I bought!  I purchased an oil painting of a peaceful meeting of water and woods!   The Indian burial is certainly of interest, but it is not something I want hung on the wall of my den.

This occurred over four years ago.  The painting still has no place to hang in my home.  It sits today, a couple of feet away from the table where I unwrapped it with such anticipation.  It was going to be a valued piece which resided in a place of honor on the wall of my house, a special halogen light shining overhead, to spread light on it when company came, or when I wanted to just sit and drink in the artist’s skillful depiction of creation.  Instead, it leans against the wall, waiting for…what?  I have never sold a painting.  I paid too much for it to throw away, and it has historical significance.  It is of no value to me, though. 

What a great example of life this is.  Centuries ago, our Savior spoke to the hypocrites, calling them “whitewashed tombs”.  The practice of dressing up ugly things in pretty packages is nothing new to our society.  The hucksters of today have nothing on the ones of that or any century.

I’ve even wondered if the way I felt about this purchase is not the same way the Lovely Lady has felt a time or two over the last thirty-some years.  I did my best to package these ugly bones as we were courting.  You can’t live with someone like me for as long as she has and not have some of those ugly skeletons come into view.   She has veiled the horror admirably, and I still have a place in her home, so it would seem that she is more open-minded than I.  And, I am grateful.

Hmmm…I seem to have wandered…Oh yes, the whitewashed tombs.  It is certain that there are a few of those prettily decorated graves around still.  We all need to be careful that we don’t get taken in.  With the painting, I thought I had done my homework, but was fooled by a reputation and a bad photograph.  It would behoove each of us to examine our essential choices in life a bit more carefully than that.  Many will still choose the pretty door hiding the dead men’s bones.  I’m thinking that we can do better than that.

Beauty and joy, and life, lie before us.  Let’s not trade that off for any pretty picture of death, no matter what talented artist chose it as her subject.

Now, what should I do with this painting?  Maybe the hall closet…

“Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.”
(Dorothy Parker~American author~1893-1967)

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs–beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity.”
(Matthew 23:27~NLT)

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

The Right Stuff

The old guys were back today.  The brothers have been coming in to visit me at the music store every month or so for awhile now.  If you didn’t know them, you wouldn’t think that they were nearly superstars once, not so many years ago.  I have seen them sporadically through the years, all the way from their arrogant, invincible youth, in the days when they played music with the best of the best and were well-known far beyond the reaches of this little corner of the world.  It may come as a surprise, but they weren’t always that nice to be around.  I wasn’t even sure I liked them all that much.

They kissed their wives and children goodbye and traveled for the biggest part of the year, repeating this for nearly a decade, coming back to divorces and troubled teens, finally realizing (almost too late) that there are more important things than fame and renown.  Even the dissolution of their family band led indirectly to more tragedy for this family later, but that is a story for a different day.

Photo: Andrew.Beebe

For the last several months, they have come by to see me and make sure that there is nothing in my music store that they can’t live without.  I’m happy to reminisce (and to take their money), but also to look to the future with them.  They recognize the follies of their former life and wish they could change more than a few exploits and harmful habits, but there is no going back there again.  That said, they are making a comeback, of sorts.  Their monthly visits coincide with the new music tour the band is on now.  Once a month, they play music for the old folks in the nursing home nearby.  It is, by their own account, more satisfying than playing for the crowds of thousands in the old days.  They report that the crowds are much less rowdy and more appreciative than were those other fans.  As we talk and joke, there is no arrogance, no sense of invincibility left, just an appreciation for the renewed opportunity to touch lives with music.  I like these guys!

As I thought of the path these fellows have walked, I couldn’t help but think of another young friend who is still headed the other direction on the road to stardom in music.  This young man is the guitarist for one of the top artists in Christian Music and rubs shoulders every day with some of the biggest names in the music business.  He took time from his busy schedule to stop by and see me the other day.  The difference between this young musician and many others I see is astounding.  We talked for awhile and, brushing aside compliments of his own amazing talents and without ever making a self-comparison, he had nothing but good things to say about a mutual friend who also aspired to make a mark in the music business at one time.  His demeanor is that of a servant, never bragging, mostly deflecting any praise away from himself and to those around him, or to the God for whom he plays.  This one, I have liked from the day I met him.

As we talked, he brought up the subject of his road schedule, thankful that he doesn’t have to spend too much time away from his wife, but cognizant of the need to keep a balance.  Although it’s clear that he has no intention of doing so very soon, he even mentioned an “exit strategy”, suggesting that he won’t pursue his career at the expense of his marriage.  I am amazed at the wisdom, having seen the “too little, too late” scenario played out too many times.

Being so involved in the music culture has led me to consider, perhaps more than most people, the paths and attitudes of different musicians.  I analyze and take apart the various approaches these folks have to life and performing and fame, and I’m not always happy with what I see.  It is easy to lose sight of the goal in the mad dash to the rewards.  The goal and the rewards are not the same thing.  You see, if you are a believer, becoming famous is not the goal.  Making a lot of money is not the goal.  The goal is turning the spotlight on the real Superstar, and focusing attention on Him through the medium of music.  There can be rewards in the meantime, but the objective must always be in sight or values will be compromised.  Winning the prizes and gaining the adulation of the crowd along the way aren’t necessarily bad, but if they cause us to waver in our resolve to finish strong, they have become burdens and distractions. Many, in achieving the rewards, abandon their original purpose and end up losing the race completely.  The cost, along the way, is often in lost relationships and people damaged, almost beyond repair.

As for me, I have no expectations (and no possibility) of being a superstar, so there is no worry about the adulation of the crowd along the road, but I do wish I had learned the wisdom of the young musician earlier in life.  Mine, while not as extreme as my old friends’, has been the long hard road of learning by my mistakes.  Like the old musicians, I will have to live with the consequences.  It is to be hoped though, that I have retained some of the lessons learned along the way.

I remember a few of them.  Perhaps it will be enough.

“Greatness is not found in possessions, power, position, or prestige.  It is discovered in goodness, humility, service, and character.”
(William Arthur Ward~Pastor and inspirational writer~1921-1994)

So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.
(I Corinthians 10:31~NET)

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

The Dance Of Life

“It takes two to tango,”  she said, without explanation.  “But…”  The youngster before her opened his mouth once more in protest and then, sensing that the conversation was over, shut it abruptly.  It was as plain as the nose on his face that his brother was at fault.  Surely the boy couldn’t be blamed for taking part in an argument which had been initiated by his evil older sibling.  The elbow through the screen door…that was just the result of what his older brother had started.  He knew that it was no use.  Dad would be home soon.  He wouldn’t use enigmatic phrases like “two to tango”, but he had other means, less quaint, to drive home his point.  Oh well, what was done, was done.  The two who were tangoing would soon face the real music.  Still, what did that odd phrase mean?

The boy thought that he may have misunderstood the words his mother said.  Perhaps she had said, “…two to tangle.”  That would work.  When you tangled with someone, you fought with them.  One person can’t fight alone.  There had to be a second combatant involved.  That must be it.

Imagine his surprise, some time later, when the phrase came up in a discussion of two adults who had gotten involved in an extramarital affair.  Someone blamed the man, but the boy’s mother, always seeking fairness, said the words again.  “Two to tango…that’s what it takes.”  He walked away, still puzzled.  Not only a fight, but also a close relationship?  It would be years later before he understood the oddly worded concept.

I’m not a dancer; not the most coordinated mover you would ever meet, so my knowledge of the tango is only second-hand (the Lovely Lady breathes a sigh of relief…).  What I see of the dance however, explains the use of the trite phrase offered for seemingly opposing actions by my mother, so many years ago.  The tango has some movements which appear to be combative as the dancers push each other away and work against each other physically, but it also has movements which require a closeness and synchronization that demonstrate almost a oneness, a unity of thought and action.  I have watched the dance and imagined what it would be to see just one of the partners moving by himself or herself.  Actually, what I have decided is that it couldn’t work at all.  The opposing, almost combative, action requires a partner against whom to work.  The matching, close action still requires a partner for the movements to be reciprocated.  It really does take two to tango!

We live in a world of extremes.  I have watched couples tear each other apart, symbolically, as they deal with frustrations and hurts.  In many cases, both individuals oppose the other, with resistance building until an all out battle erupts.  The two dance their angry, bitter tango until one partner walks away, leaving the other to stand on the stage in wonder at the cessation of the dance.  Miraculously, once in a long while, one of the partners will attempt to repair the  relationship, exchanging their taunting, contrary moves for the clinging, synchronized ones.  But, if the other partner doesn’t soon change the attitude of his or her dance, it is to no avail.  It takes two to tango.  I have seen times when the change in attitude by one will be reciprocated, and the dance of love and closeness resumes.  Those times are, in our day and age, too rare.  Our society seems to celebrate the combative spirit, encouraging the dancers to seek other, more exciting, partners.  The dance ends in civil court as the last part of their tango for two is played out.

I’ve spent a fair share of my own time shoving and pushing away from others.  I’ve come to realize that the close, congenial interaction is much more desirable.  We draw strength from each other; we work in tandem with each other;  we achieve our goals as we borrow each other’s strengths and smooth over each other’s weaknesses.  It still takes two to tango.  I like the end of this particular dance a whole lot better, though.

How’s your tango going?  You know better than anyone the struggles and the calm, the fights and the embraces.  Maybe, it’s time to take a dance lesson or two.  I know a Teacher who understands the moves better than any other.  He’s even got an opening in His schedule for another student or two.  If you’re going to tango anyway, you might as well do it right.

Well, this old guy with two left feet has had enough of this part of the dance for today.  I think I’ll head home to spend a little time with my favorite partner. 

I haven’t stepped on her feet in quite a while.  I’ll try to keep it that way.

“And, hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon.”
(“The Owl and the Pussycat” by Edward Lear~English writer and poet~1812-1901)

“There are “friends” who destroy each other, but a real friend sticks closer than a brother.”
(Proverbs 18:24~NLT)

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