Spontaneous Dents and Walking Plates

“Usually, when we speak of ‘dents’ in an instrument, we are speaking of damage which has been done by someone, Ma’am.” I had taken a quick break to eat a very late lunch and, wolfing down the last bite of my PB&J sandwich, was headed for the sales area in the music store, when the patient voice of the Lovely Lady spoke the words. Actually, I heard just a hint of frustration, but that would not be evident to anyone else. The lady with whom she was speaking was adamant. “No. The dents are just appearing. She doesn’t know how. There are just more of them all the time.”
I kept my mouth shut (miraculously) and let the conversation play out. The lady agreed to bring the horn by soon for us to be able to assess the amount of damage and offer our opinion on why the dents “just keep appearing.” We have had these conversations before. The child stands and shrugs as his/her parent asks, “How did this happen?” Normally, before the discussion is over, the truth comes out. The horn has been mishandled, or had a chance meeting with another child’s instrument, or once, even been smacked over a little brother’s head. There is always a reason, always a culprit. Never have we discovered such a thing as a spontaneous dent. It just does not happen.
Day after day, they come in. Parents. Requesting a new book for their child to use in the band class. “Someone stole little Jackie’s.” Hah! It’s never, “Jackie lost his book again. He has no sense of responsibility, because I refuse to hold him accountable.”The latter is much nearer to the truth than the former, but I have never heard it said.
As I write, I can’t help but hear my Mom’s voice, out of the dim and far-distant past. “Well, it certainly didn’t grow legs and walk up here by itself!” She had been missing a dinner plate for several days; a circumstance very close to a disaster in our family. With seven people who ate at each meal, there weren’t many extra dishes. She needed that plate. And, wouldn’t you know it? The plate was found under my bed. “I didn’t put it there!” came the plaintive cry from my lips. It was a futile attempt, I knew. Mom’s reply cut through all the argument which could have ensued, pointing out the obvious. It was my bed; the plate was underneath it; the responsibility was mine.
I won’t waste your time with all the subtle arguments and distinctions which could be brought to bear here. Sure, there might have been more to the story. A brother might have slid the plate over under my bed with his foot as the search was in progress. Or he might not have. It makes little difference. The fact is that someone put it there, as my mother said so perceptively. Things like that don’t happen in a vacuum.
It is imperative that we take responsibility for our actions. I won’t moan about the latest generation and their lack of accountability. It was true in my generation also (and in yours). We did our best to wriggle out of blame for anything which we had done. Never mind that we knew that “confession is good for the soul”. Even though we had learned that lesson the hard way again and again, the next time we were caught in a fault, it was every bit as difficult to extract a statement of culpability as the time before.
As it turns out, every generation for which we have a written record has reacted in a way which attempts to deflect responsibility to someone or something else. Adam blamed Eve and, indirectly, God. “The woman (whom You gave me) tempted me.” Wow! Not my fault. Hers. Yours.No wonder we have gotten so good at it.
Did I say that confession is good for the soul? I don’t want you to think that if we suddenly start to follow our conscience and admit out faults, it will be smooth sailing from then on. Confession requires restitution. Oh boy! Now I did it! I should have issued the disclaimer first! Here is the disclaimer then: I am not talking about God’s offer of salvation; not disputing grace, which comes through faith, and is not of works. I am speaking of how life works, of what is required for us to claim to be responsible people. It is a practical thing, not intended to address our spiritual condition (although in many aspects, our spiritual condition will govern our responses in this area).
In our dealings with friends, and family, and any other person in the world, we are required to follow up a statement of confession with actions of restoration. “I broke it. I’ll pay for a new one.” “I stole that, and I accept the penalty.” “I hurt you. I’m sorry and will work to restore our damaged relationship.” Statements of confession without intent to restore are empty and void. They mean nothing, just as if we had denied responsibility altogether. Speaking words with our mouth does not absolve us of the necessity to make amends with our actions.
Dents don’t appear by themselves. Plates don’t grow legs and walk upstairs. We are responsible for our own behavior, and integrity of character demands that we confess our faults and make restitution to the best of our ability. If we don’t help our children to see this and live this, we rob them and doom them to a life of blaming others and rationalizing their every action.
It’s how we grow, how we mature. I just wish I hadn’t had so much experience in saying, “My fault.” Oh well, if confession really is good for the soul, mine should be getting quite healthy by now.
I wonder after all, where those dents did come from?
“None but the well-bred man knows how to confess a fault, or acknowledge himself in an error.”
(Benjamin Franklin~American Statesman, philosopher, and inventor~1706-1790)
“When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long…Then I acknowledged my sin to You and did not cover up my iniquity…”
(Psalm 32:3,5a~NIV) 
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

One Thin Dime?

My bank cheated me out of nine cents last week. It’s really not such a big deal. It is less than a dime; hardly worth bothering with, but sometimes the principle is as important as the value. Maybe I’ll give them a call tomorrow…
How did my bank cheat me, you ask? They didn’t do it knowingly, but it happened nonetheless. Earlier last week, I had the Lovely Lady pick up several rolls of coins from the financial institution while she was making a deposit there. Buying coins is a common occurrence for us, since our cash register is always in need of change. Then yesterday morning, I noticed that the dimes in the cash drawer were running low, so I grabbed that five dollar roll of the thin coins and dropped it into the bin, opening it when I needed a dime to add to a customer’s change about noon. But last night, as I was counting out the register to finish the day, I noticed something weird.
I was counting the dimes when I thought that there was a flash of some coin a little different color. Since they all had fit uniformly in the stack of coins I held in my hand as I counted, I wasn’t concerned. Later, however, I thought about that single, dark dime. Strange–dimes weren’t usually brown. I went digging in the bin for it and pulled it out. Aha! It wasn’t a dime, but a penny! But wait! Pennies don’t fit neatly with dimes. They are larger in diameter. How was it then, that the stack of coins was so uniform, so consistent? A closer look at the coin in my hand revealed the answer. Some joker had very carefully filed off the edge of the imposter coin, removing the raised rim all the way around. It was almost exactly the same diameter as a dime, therefore fitting neatly into a roll and, as a consequence, costing me exactly nine cents.
For just a moment, I sit and visualize the scenario. The young man holds the contents of his broken piggy bank in his hands, counting his dimes. Forty-nine! He’s counted it three times and every time, it comes out to forty-nine. He needs fifty dimes to make a five dollar roll. Then, his eyes light on the handful of stray pennies lying nearby and an idea comes to him. Moments later, after putting down the file, he holds fifty coins which will pass muster as a complete roll of dimes and he is off to the bank. They don’t even look at the coins as they are loaded in the automatic counter, dropping down into their individual slot to be stacked and covered in the prefabricated paper roll. No one ever looks at that odd coin, not actually a dime, but no longer just a penny. It certainly doesn’t belong here, but it will take someone with eyes to see before that can be determined. By then, the young man is long gone, enjoying the hamburger and fries his five-dollar bill purchased for him at the local burger joint.
And me? I’m still nine cents short! The coin is an imposter, a pretender, and it’s not worth anywhere near what its value should have been. I’ve been taken in by a fraud!
Funny. The penny has a proper place. It also should normally come to me in a roll of coins from the bank, to be opened and dropped into a drawer in my cash register. I buy pennies all the time. In fact, the Lovely Lady picked up a few rolls at the same time she acquired this roll of dimes the other day. It’s simply that I only pay one cent apiece for these coins. They have a different purpose and belong in a different location. There is no place in either drawer for this marred coin now. I’ll probably throw it away, someday…
My mind goes back nearly forty years. The skinny boy has slipped out from his parent’s house, sneaking away to a dance with his friends. The music is loud, the girls are attractive, and one of his friends has a bottle of who-knows-what to share around. They have a drink and some of the boys are brave enough to ask the girls to dance, but the skinny boy isn’t having much fun. He realizes that he doesn’t belong here. He is not one of these guys, not at all who they think he is. It doesn’t help that just about then, the cover band playing on the little dance stage starts into their rendition of Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not To Come.” The skinny boy knows when he is beaten. He heads for the exit.
Now, you need to read this very carefully. I am notmaking a statement about whether drinking and dancing is acceptable. This is not a discussion about that at all. The statement is about who the skinny boy was. His parents had taught him that dances were not a proper place for him to spend time, had assured him that drinking was not the way to prove his worth to his friends. He was out of place, simply because he wasn’t supposed to be there doing those things.
Here in the south, we would say that the skinny kid stuck out like a sore thumb. You know how it is. You hit your thumb with a hammer and it hurts like a fire burning. Then every time you bump it against anything for the next few days, you feel that awful pain once more. It doesn’t matter how you baby the sore digit or try to protect it; you’re bound to bump it again and again. The sore thumb doesn’t belong there; won’t fit in until it is no longer sore. As long as it is what it is–sore–the thumb won’t blend in.
I have tried to blend in where I had no business being on any number of occasions. I was uncomfortable years ago as I attempted to sell vacuum cleaners, and again that time when I was standing in the garage with all the guys swapping filthy stories. More recently, I was out of place in the coffee shop surrounded by teenagers texting each other, and I was even ill at ease as I sat on a church board. Some of those places, it was just wrong for me to be in; others simply weren’t the correct fit for me. Oh, I tried to file off the edges; tried to change my shape a bit in an attempt to keep folks from noticing. But, sooner or later, the shape you are determines the space you will fill.
It doesn’t make sense to try to be something you are not. It is not profitable to try to fit into a round hole, even though you are unmistakeably square. We are not intended to live our lives pretending. We will wear ourselves out with trying to conform where we have no business being at all.
Do you want to accomplish great things? Do them in the space in which you were intended to fit. We misunderstand the meaning of the phrase “great things” if we only think that they are those things which attract attention, the things which gain notoriety. Sometimes, the small things we can accomplish using the tools and talents with which we have been blessed will be the great things we always were intended to do in the lives of others.
It’s time to quit trying to pass myself off as a dime, when I’m nothing more than a simple penny. I think I’m going to keep circulating for awhile longer. Maybe you’ll come along with me.
Oh! The places we’ll go…
“What I do, you cannot do; but what you do, I cannot do. The needs are great, and none of us, including me, ever do great things. But we can all do small things with great love, and together we can do something wonderful.”
(Mother Teresa of Calcutta~Albanian missionary and Nobel Peace Prize winner~1910-1997)
“This only have I found: God created mankind upright, but they have gone in search of many schemes.”
(Ecclesiastes 7:29~NIV)
“I seen so many things
I ain’t never seen before
Don’t know what it is
I don’t wanna see no more.
Mama told me not to come…”
(“Mama Told Me Not To Come” by Randy Newman~recorded by Three Dog Night in 1970)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

No More Scribbling

I sit and stare at the blank screen. Maybe this is the way it ends…just as it began. A couple of years ago, I sat one night in front of a blank screen and started to write. The next thing I knew, four hundred posts had made their way to my computer screen and thence, to the Internet. Perhaps a few have landed on your screen in the process. But, no more.  I sit and blink at the stark white surface, willing ideas and words to come. The elusive characters are not cooperative.
Panic hits. Perhaps, with the story of the skinny boy and the bullies, the well has gone dry. There will be no more stories, no more applications. No. I have been here before. There is more somewhere; I just have to dig a little deeper this time. My mind wanders, as I contemplate the blank display in front of me…
My concentration is broken by a frantic skritch-skritch-skritchingnoise nearby. I turn my eyes away from the preacher on the stage and glance over at the young man with the buzz-cut hair. All of five years old, he is sitting with his feet tucked under his legs and a composition notebook open across his lap. The ball-point pen in his right hand is nothing more than a blur. A noisy blur, but nevertheless… I reach over and put my hand over his, stopping the progression of rapidly appearing lines across the blank page. I whisper in his ear, “You know, that’s a little noisy. You can draw better if you slow down.” The boy, who reminds me a lot of someone I once knew (I can’t quite remember who now), smiles that big impish grin and replies, not so quietly, “But Grandpa, I don’t want to draw. I want to fill up the page fast!” The people nearby glance over, annoyed by the sudden laugh which the young artist’s grandfather is unable to stifle.
Tonight, I can’t stop my mind from pausing on that scene for a moment or two. The impatience of youth is an amusement to me from my vantage point, many years on, but it was nothing to laugh at once upon a time. There was not a moment to be lost! Adventure was waiting and every day was filled to the limit with excitement. I couldn’t wait for church to be over, or school to be out, or even for nap time to be completed. Why, I remember the time I…
Painting by Margaret Kirkpatrick
My reverie is interrupted by the intrusion of a voice that cracks as it fusses at me, “Can you stop that racket? I declare, you kids don’t know the meaning of quiet!” Grandma and Grandpa had parked their little Airstream trailer in our side yard a few days before and now she needed some time to create. Having five little imps around wasn’t helping. Well, quite possibly, it was only a couple of the imps who were causing the problem, but she took care of that with her authoritative manner. As she set up her easel, we watched with anticipation. Grandma was an award winning artist and we just knew that there would be a completed painting within the next few moments. Alas, it was not to be. As we watched, she began to cover the artist’s board with a layer of light-colored paint. Then, painstakingly, she began to draw, first one line, then another. After half an hour, there was still nothing to be seen on the board but a few lines. What a let down! We took off to find some other pastime, something exciting like tossing rotten oranges at the passing cars. Tiring of that, we wandered back. Still nothing we could identify. It was frustrating, so eventually we gave up completely. When the tiny Airstream trailer left a week later, there was no completed painting left behind. I don’t know if she ever finished it.
A year or two after my Grandma passed away, I spent a couple of hours exploring the garage at her house in California. There were piles and piles of paintings, all in various stages of completion. Some were still in the condition which the little imp I had once been saw that week, many years previous. Others were almost complete. My mind finally began to grasp the frustration that she must have felt at our lack of vision. Good work takes time. A stroke here, a line there, and a dash of color over there. Little by little, the painting would begin to look more and more like the image which she had envisaged. Patience and vision are essential attributes of the artist’s nature. 
As I consider the incredible task of starting with the blank canvas and, after many hours of painstaking labor, completing a beautiful work of art which compels those viewing it to marvel, my mind is drawn to a particular painting I possess. It is one which my grandmother did finish and then gave to my family many years ago. The painting of my grandfather’s mandolin has almost no monetary value to anyone outside my family, but we wouldn’t part with it for any amount. For one thing, my Grandpa’s instrument is immortalized in it, even though the mandolin itself has deteriorated beyond recall, many years ago. But more importantly, the care, and the patience, and the vision which my grandmother invested into this one project allows me to keep her alive and close in my thoughts. She as the artist, after all, is immortalized in this painting also.
Wow! Would you look at this? A page full of words.Just a few moments ago, it was blank; with not a thought in this writer’s mind. I have to say that I am gratified to know that this never was the case with the blank page with which each of us started. The Artist has always had a vision for the finished painting; the patience which He has shown as each line and shade has been added has been unending. There have been times, well more than once or twice, when I have grabbed the brush and, like my grandson in his haste to fill the page, scribbled indiscriminately. Perhaps you also have a stray line or two which you have added in your impatience. Not to worry.
In the big picture…and it is a big, big picture…those lines will be blended in, if we yield the brush back to its proper master, the genuine Artist. From blank page to finished work of art, He has never wavered in the vision and scope of the entire composition. Perhaps my namesake, the Apostle, said it best when he wrote, “I am confident of this one thing. He who began the good work in you will carry it through to completion.
I don’t always understand the next sketched out lines; can’t always see the scene which is being filled in with variegated colors and shades of dark and light. I will just have to trust the Artist.
And, looking at the painting which is taking shape on the canvas of my life, I will pray that the Artist is clearly visible to those who bother to look. Maybe that is your hope also. 
We will have to follow Grandpa’s rule for drawing in church, though.
No scribbling allowed!
“Please be patient. God’s not finished with me yet.”
“Let nothing disturb thee;
Let nothing dismay thee;
All things pass;
God never changes.
Patience attains
All that it strives for.
He who has God
Finds that he lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.”
(“Poem IX”~St. Teresa of Avila~Spanish philosopher/mystic~1515-1582)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

The Bigger They Are…

The skinny junior high school kid was fuming. For one reason or another, this whole day, he had been on the wrong end of a thousand insults, or so it seemed to him. The cuts had run the gamut, starting with remarks about his weird, almost bowl style haircut, or his too-short pants (slacks, not jeans like everyone else wore), or his dorky glasses–you know, the ones with the black plastic rims, instead of the fashionable granny style metal rims. And this! This was just too much! The camel’s back was broken; one straw too many piled atop all the others.
Gym class on this day had been a disaster. The coach had become frustrated with the trouble-makers and made the whole class run laps. “Get out there and give me ten laps before you hit the showers!” The tallish, slender boy had dutifully run his laps, all ten of them and headed toward the locker room, only to be called back by the coach. The man was surrounded by several of the football players in the class, all of them attesting to the fact that the victim had run only nine laps, not ten. Obviously, it had not been wise of him to lap the jocks, as they lumbered along the track at their leisurely pace. They were out for payback and the coach fell for their story. “Get back out there and run five more! Nobody cheats around here!” the man roared, indignant that this skinny kid would dare to take any less than the prescribed number of laps. The kid protested, but it was to no avail, so he headed back out to run the penalty trips around the field’s perimeter. Before he finished, his antagonists were dressed and laughing at him as they sauntered past the field on the way to their next class.
It never seemed to change. He had been the butt end of their pranks for any number of years. It made no difference to him that lots of other boys were in the same boat. All he could think about was their constant hazing and cruelty to him. The boy just couldn’t imagine taking this for the rest of his years in school. He had to do something. Anything. The opportunity was not too long in coming on this fateful day.
At lunchtime, the kids finished up their cafeteria meals and went outside to await the next class. A group of the jocks were there, throwing around cutting remarks, as usual. They tormented the skinny kid one last time about his additional laps, asking him if he had enjoyed his “extra training”, before turning their attention to other matters. He stood there and decided that it was now or never. Picking out the biggest boy of the bunch, he ran up behind him and shoved him as hard as he could. The huge young athlete went rolling on the ground, head over heels. Picking himself up, he asked in a dazed voice, “What was that for?” The terrified kid answered, “Because I’m tired of you guys teasing me! What are you going to do about it?” In his mind, he was thinking about the beating that was coming, trying to tell himself that it couldn’t be any worse than the torment he had endured up until now. The boy looked at him angrily for a minute and then a smile came across his face. “Nothing, I guess. I’ll say this for you. You’ve got guts!” The other members of the football team were crowding toward the boy, ready to deal out retribution, but the big guy waved them off. “Leave him alone, fellas. He’s got a point. Nobody deserves to be treated that way.”
For the most part, it was the end of the bullying for this skinny, socially maladjusted kid. Oh, there would be other, more serious problems, but that phase of school life was effectively dealt with. You never saw a more elated kid in all your life. He walked on clouds the rest of the day and bragged about the feat to his brothers when he got home. “I took on the biggest one of the bunch and put him on the ground!” Never mind that he had to hit him from the back to do it. It had taken courage to finally stand up to those guys. 
You can bet that the event was reported to others in the school. For awhile, at least, it seemed that there was almost a grudging respect for the strange, skinny kid. He had made it clear that he was a force to be dealt with by choosing the biggest of his aggressors to take on. If he had picked the smallest one, there would have been a never ending succession of others about the same size wanting to prove that they could best him. The response wasn’t limited to the other kids alone. The young man, realizing that he had earned a respite from the torment, began to carry himself differently. He didn’t have to take the guff from anyone, and partially because of the day’s happenings, partially because of his new-found confidence, everyone started to treat him with less disdain. It wasn’t a bad feeling. The skinny boy could get used to this!
Do you have a pile of problems staring you in the face? Have they beaten you before you’ve even started? I have to admit that there are many days when I feel like that skinny teenaged kid. Oh, my problems aren’t living breathing tormentors in the form of athletes or peers, but I am still mocked by the perception of having failed. The evidence is constantly present. Stacks of unfinished…no, strike that...Stacks of un-begun tasks surround me, each job staring me in the face as I come to work (or even head home), laughing at me with that bullying tone. I have dreams which have never even been attempted. I have relationships to mend which have languished, as this terrified, aging man has admitted defeat. Constantly, my failures and should-have-beens mock me. You too?
Here’s a suggestion. How about…we mount a surprise attack on the worst job of all of them facing us? Pick out the one you dread the most, the one which terrifies the living daylights out of you, and take it on with everything you’ve got in you. Courage! You can do this! I’ve got my nemesis in mind and will be right there with you, knocking out the big, bad guy.
Okay, so the analogy doesn’t follow through completely. The rest of the things that are facing you won’t automatically fade out of existence. You’ll still have to deal with them. The thing is…now you’ll have one in the win column. And, it will be the most formidable one you have to deal with. It’s all downhill from here. Don’t stop until they’re finished; don’t let any of the rest tell you that you’re a loser or convince you that you don’t have what it takes. You’ve got a history! You know that you’re capable.
Does this sound like too much rah-rah cheerleader talk? Just feel good mumbo-jumbo? You might think so, if we didn’t have an Example to look to.
I’m reminded that when the Savior came to earth, he didn’t waste time getting rid of the false teachers, didn’t do the piddling revolutionary tasks that his followers wanted to see. He didn’t rid the nation of its Roman aggressors, didn’t waste time with shutting down the tax-collectors. No, he went for the biggest guy, that old serpent. He crushed the head of His enemy and by doing so, completed the job which had been waiting for ages to be finished. At exactly the right time, He defeated the one enemy that mattered.
So, saddle up and get ready to ride. Bullies come in all shapes and sizes. Every one of them has its weak spot and will fall. But you’ve got to get going first. Mr. Tolkien knew what he was talking about when he wrote these words, didn’t he? “It’s the job that’s never started that takes the longest to finish.”
Well, today’s the day we knock over some bullies. Let’s get going. I’ll tell you this from personal experience, though…
You’ve got to get a little head start if you want to see him rolling on the ground…
“We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed.”
(II Corinthians 4:8,9~NLT)
Mary Poppins: “Our first game is called, ‘Well Begun is Half Done.'”
Michael: “I don’t like the sound of that.”
Mary Poppins: “Otherwise called, ‘Let’s Tidy Up the Nursery.'”
Michael (to Jane): “I told you she was tricky.”
(from Walt Disney’s “Mary Poppins”)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Through The Fog

There it was again.  The noise of the vacuum cleaner in the sanctuary roared in my ears, but I was sure that I heard hammering.  I stuck my head in the door and shouted at the Lovely Lady, beckoning her, when I finally got her attention, to turn off the motor on the noisy thing.  She did, looking quizzically at me.  “Did you hear something banging?” I asked.  “No…can’t hear a thing over this,” she made a motion with her foot to get back to her work, but I held up my hand.  There it was again, coming from the side door of the church sanctuary, where we were fulfilling our weekly task as the church custodians.  Someone was banging on the wooden door.  No one ever used that door.  I wondered who it could be?

By the time I got to the door, the man was halfway down the steps, but I opened it anyway and asked if I could help him.  He made his way unsteadily back up the stairs and stood there, swaying back and forth.  He was quite obviously inebriated, but he asked what he had come to ask.  “Can you give me some money?  I need to get home.”  It is a question that gets asked at the church doors across this nation a thousand times a day.  I answered him honestly.  “I don’t have any money, sir.  I’m sorry.”  I didn’t add the thing I really wanted to say.  “…and I wouldn’t give you any if I did.”  Typically, cash given to a drunken person only aids in making them more drunk.  I’m not sure this man could have managed much more in that direction, though.  He was definitely well past the point of caring.

He muttered something about no one wanting to help him and staggered off the church steps toward the highway.  I stood there a moment, eyeing the man as he wove first one direction and then the other.  I really had nothing in my pockets.  The Lovely Lady and I didn’t just clean the church every week because we had servants’ hearts.  We needed the money.  With two children and a business which was barely scraping by, there just was never any extra cash after purchasing groceries and paying the bills.  I was standing there in self pity, considering my plight, when I came to my senses about what the old man was doing.  The highway he was headed for was a really busy one, the second most active port of entry into the state of Arkansas.  Semi-trucks and cars streamed past, one after the other, every once in awhile one of them honking its horn at the fellow.  He was struggling to walk on the shoulder, but was failing miserably, instead wandering into and out of the lane of oncoming traffic.  I ran after him and pulled him toward the ditch. 

“Can I take you somewhere?”  He named a town miles away, but I didn’t have that much gas and told him so.  He thought for awhile and then he had it!  “Just take me down to the railroad tracks then,” the man said thickly.  “I’ll hop a freight train and be home real quick.”  I laughed out loud, but he was dead serious.  What could I do?  I couldn’t leave him to get killed on the highway.  I turned him around and we walked back to where my old pickup truck was parked.  With much effort, he pulled himself up into the cab and we started across town, in the general direction of the railroad tracks.  As I drove, I thought about what I was doing.  If the highway was dangerous, the railroad tracks were suicidal.  I made a turn or two toward the north, hoping that he wouldn’t notice.  He didn’t, falling over against me as I turned the corners.  After a mile or two, I pulled to a stop and told him, “Here we are.”  We were in front of the police station.  It was the only thing I could think of.  They would give him a place to sleep off the liquor and then, if he was still determined to ride the freight, he could find his way himself and wasn’t nearly as likely to kill or maim himself.

The man looked at the building and then at me.  “Why you @#%&@!  I’ll kill you for this!”  I think it’s the only time anyone has ever threatened to kill me and it took me a little by surprise.  I explained to him that I just couldn’t let him hurt himself and that at least he’d have a place to sleep for the night.  He thought about that for a minute, letting his whiskey-pickled brain work its way around the thought.  “Okay.  Let’s get it over with.”  It took a few minutes to explain to the police officer at the desk what was going on.  They weren’t any happier with me bringing him to them than the man was himself, but they finally said that they would figure something out and I left.  I never saw him again. 

I look back on the occurrence, twenty-five years ago, and I still wonder.  What did I accomplish?  Why was he so angry with me?  Why were the police unhappy with me? 

I had done the right thing, hadn’t I?  My only intent was to protect the man’s life.  Wasn’t that what the police were supposed to do, also?  “To Serve and Protect”  That’s their motto.  They just didn’t seem so keen on helping this old guy.  I’m not sure I’ll ever figure out their response, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve finally got a little insight into the old man’s thought process.

The longer I ponder on the event, the more clear it becomes.  He was happy with the way things were going.  Unaware of his danger on the roadside, he would have gone his way without a care until that last sudden impact.  He didn’t know, and he didn’t care.  When I pointed out his jeopardy, he chose a different path, this one just as fraught with danger as the last one.  Again, he would have been perfectly content for me to drop him off at the tracks, awaiting a chance to jump for the passing freight. Perhaps he would have made the leap.  Then again, perhaps he would have fallen short and had the consequences of that foolish action to deal with.  He was completely willing to put himself in danger, and may even have been unaware of the peril he was in, but either way, he certainly didn’t want me to save him. His angry reaction took away all doubt I might have had of that.

I continue to ponder on the strange event, realizing that there is more to learn.  As much as I want to deny it, the old drunk is a picture of you and me.  Oh, we may not be found in that inebriated condition, but we certainly are just as stubborn, and frequently just as bewildered.  We think we know what we are doing, our befuddled minds assuring us that we have made good choices, and all the while, we are heading for a precipice, about to jump off.

You know, I seem to have a knack for explaining the obvious.  I think this may be where I get off tonight.  You will, no doubt, be able to work out the details of this enigma yourself.  I will leave you with just one last thought.  There is a Savior, who will not force you as this clumsy young man did to the old fellow many years ago.  The current danger is clear and it is present.  But, you get to choose.

I’m hoping you won’t choose the train tracks.

 “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”
(C.S. Lewis~Irish novelist and Christian apologist~1898-1963)

“How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me.”
(Matthew 23:37b~NLT)

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

Not Really a Joking Matter

“Eso si que es!”  This evening, the ages-old punch line to a joke came to my mind. It was almost fifty years ago that my father told me the joke, but I couldn’t help but think about the ancient gag tonight as I realized that, once again, communication has broken down.  The result is frustration and accusation, with a few recriminations tossed in for good measure.

Okay, first the joke.  The old Hispanic fellow walked into the Woolworth store (it was fifty years ago, remember?), where no one spoke Spanish, and he started looking for something.  The salesman tried to help, asking again and again what it was that the man needed.  Finally, as he wandered down near the shoe department, the old guy exclaimed, “Eso si que es!” (approximate translation: “That’s it!”) while pointing to the rack upon which the socks were displayed. The salesman retorted, disgustedly, “Well, why didn’t you spell it in the first place?”  I’ll leave you to work that one out (hint: you may have to pronounce the Spanish words aloud) and move on to the present reality.

The customer received her order today.  Her email to us tonight communicates her unhappiness very distinctly.  “You people ought to be ashamed!   I paid good money for nothing!  I will never order from you people again!”  I won’t go into the details of the order, because they don’t matter.  What does matter is that this lady thought she was ordering something which she did not receive.  Wondering if we were actually at fault, I went back and read the description of the product online.  It describes the item very clearly…to me.  What happened here?

When we set up our online catalog, we discussed and argued; we wrote and rewrote.  We wanted to be certain that the articles were described precisely and simply.  Then we went back and rewrote some more.  The catalog went live and weeks passed.  We kept track of the comments and questions.  Then we sat down again and discussed and argued; we wrote and rewrote some more.  We have done our best to make clear what we are selling.  But, every once in awhile, a customer will order something and then ask to return it because it wasn’t what they thought they were ordering.  Whose fault is this?  Who is not communicating?

Well, like the fellow in the tired old joke, sometimes we just don’t speak the same language as those with whom we are attempting to exchange information.  The written word can be a powerful thing, but it can also be an unwieldy tool; inflexible and limited by both its authors and its readers.  When we find a person with whom we don’t share a common vocabulary–and it’s not always a different language, but sometimes just a different environment and culture–we have to work to find a more universal understanding.  We will be doing that in the next day or two with our customer.  Because we don’t actually sell the product she thought she was ordering, we will probably not be doing business with her again.  That doesn’t change our responsibility to be civil and work out an equitable conclusion to our business transaction.  We will attempt to communicate in honesty and with compassion.  Time will tell if our efforts are successful.

Have you ever been on either side of this scenario?  Neither position is a pleasant place to be, is it?  Each party thinks he or she is right.  Depending on the temperament and reaction of both people, the situation can become tense.  Accusations can fly.  Tempers can be temporarily mislaid.  I know.  I’ve reacted wrongly more times than it is comfortable to admit.  Again and again though, the key to resolution is more and better communication.   The obvious conclusion of the matter is that, as long as the lines remain open, communication will eventually result.  Cut those lines and all hope of success is lost.

Having said that, I want to make another point that should be obvious.  It is better to communicate well in the first place.  We’ll be discussing our descriptive phrases in our catalog again very soon; of that, you may be sure.  Time and money, as well as goodwill, are lost every time a customer misunderstands what they are reading.  We need to speak with clarity and with precision to avoid misconceptions and errors.  As the old saw goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

So, how are your communication skills?  Do you work on them regularly?  Our relationships depend on good communication.  Husbands…“Huh?” and “Yeah,” don’t cut it.  Usually, communication requires complete sentences. Wives…“You don’t ever…” is not a good way to start a discussion.  If you think you’re not appreciated, talk about it.  If you’re overwhelmed, say that. And, don’t quit trying.  I guarantee you that silence will not be effective communication.  The other person in the relationship may understand that you’re unhappy, but they will never understand the reason, nor find the solution.  Keep talking!

And don’t forget the exhortation that the Preacher offered so succinctly so many years ago:  “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger.”  In your communication, remember that love and truth are to be intertwined.  Speak the truth clearly, but do it for the right reason.

With a little effort, the communication barrier can be broken.  Unlike breaking the sound barrier, no explosion will result.  But, like the sound barrier, you’ll never break the communication barrier if you just sit still.

It’s time we were up and talking!

“In the same way, unless you speak an intelligible message with your language, how will anyone know what is being said? You’ll be talking into the air!”
(I Corinthians 4:9~ISV)

“Men and women belong to different species and communications between them is still in its infancy.
(Bill Cosby~American comedian and actor)

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

Said The Spider

The email I opened today began with these words: “This is to inform you of a very important information which will be of a great help to redeem you from all the difficulties you have been experiencing in getting your long over due payment…”   Skipping down to the bottom of the note, I was amused to see this warning:  “Any action contrary to this instruction is at your own risk.”  I laughed at the audacity of the author and deleted the post. I get these missives on a daily basis.  You probably do too.  This one appeared to have originated in Nigeria and, like all the others of its ilk, was nothing more than an attempt to gain information about those recipients who are foolish enough to reply to the email.  What promises to offer personal redemption is actually an attempt to enslave you.

Photo: Evelyn Simak

Most of us would never be so foolish as to be caught in one of these traps, but a number of greedy people have. A few of them are still digging out of the financial hole left by the scam.  Most people are naturally skeptical of these too-good-to-be-true offers, because they understand that there are unscrupulous people just waiting for willing victims to walk into their webs of deceit.  We have been warned again and again about these crooked schemes and are constantly looking out for them.  We are wise to do so.

But, I can’t quit thinking about that audacious sentence at the bottom of the email.  “Any action contrary to this instruction is at your own risk.”  I see warnings like these on a regular basis.  Band instrument manufacturers insist that their product will only function at its best when you purchase and use their lubricants to maintain the valves and keys.  I can’t count the number of times that customers have come into my store, requesting these proprietary products by brand, insisting that their instrument will suffer if they don’t have them.  The sad fact is that most of these companies purchase their products from the major distributors and re-label them with their own name and trade-mark, marking them up many times the actual value.  They often are inferior products, rather than superior ones.  I do my best to gently guide these misguided folks to the other quality products, but there are some who insist.  A similar warning is there about power supplies for electronics, replacement heads for percussion instruments, tuning machines for guitars, and any number of other products.  All are scams to produce ongoing profit for a company which was only owed the profit for the original item, but has figured out how to guarantee a return for the life of the instrument.  Like the writer of the Nigerian email, they understand that many will be foolish enough to take their bait.

But, again, I think about the audacious warning.  “Any action contrary to this instruction is at your own risk.” I’m thinking that there actually are times when such a warning needs to be heeded.  I remember the time the next-door neighbor kids didn’t.  It cost them a lot of expensive camping and hunting equipment, to say nothing of the fact that they almost burned down the neighborhood.  The simple instructions on the side of a can of charcoal lighter fluid should have averted the entire affair.  “Do not spray contents on an open flame. Combustion will occur!”  A rather simple principle, one would think.  It wasn’t simple for these boys!  They had pitched their tent in the middle of the semi-wooded lot, leaning their .22 rifles against a nearby log, and started a fire.  Supper was prepared and eaten and they settled in for the evening.  It was still light out, but there wasn’t much to do except sit around and talk.  Bored, one of them, probably Mike, got the idea that it might be fun to shoot a little lighter fluid on the smouldering campfire.  It was.

Within seconds, the flames were leaping higher, and each subsequent squirt from the metal can was infinitely more exciting, as the flames began to chase the liquid up toward the young man wielding the can.  Finally though, the real combustion occurred, as the flames followed the liquid up and jumped to the lighter fluid soaked hands of the screaming boy.  Mike dropped the can, banging his hands on the ground to douse the flames that seemed as if they would burn away his flesh.  Seconds later, Mike and his brothers were fleeing the conflagration, as their campsite–tent, guns, and all–went up in flames.  Within moments, what started out as a simple campfire was a raging grass fire that threatened to consume not only the trees and dry grass nearby, but the homes bordering the area, also.  I know. We stood and frantically sprayed our property with a garden hose as the fire department worked to extinguish the main fire.  It was a scary evening. All because a few boys didn’t know to pay attention to the warnings.

Somehow, it is in our nature to ignore words of warning.  “Hot!” we tell the child, yet he has to touch the burning stove to find out for himself.  “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear,” states the admonition on the automobile mirror, but again and again, people move into the other lane too soon, forcing vehicles behind them to brake suddenly or be hit.  Stop signs are ignored, lifeguard’s instructions unheeded, warnings from doctors merely laughed at.  Of course, you know that it is indeed in our nature to ignore instructions.  One of the earliest stories I learned in Sunday School was the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  Their Creator said, (and I paraphrase), “Any action contrary to this instruction is at your own risk.”  The serpent planted the suggestion, but the pair determined their, and our, course.  Again and again as a child, I wondered why in the world they would ignore the warning.  How could they ruin it for all of us?

But now, I look deeply into my own heart and know, beyond any doubt, that I would have made the same choice.  I still do, even today. My guess is that you do also.

Do you suppose that we might be better off if we would heed warnings which are desperately vital, but ignore the others?  The false ones, the ones primarily intended to impoverish and to harm us are fairly easy to spot.  Just as easily, we can determine the warnings that actually do demand our attention and our obedience.  And, the most important of these have to do with our very being, not just with physical safety.

You see, there is an instruction manual.  It was not written by some scam artist in Nigeria, nor by an ad writer on Madison Avenue.  Truly, we ignore these instructions at our own risk.  Contrary to popular belief, this manual actually contains a lot more encouragement than warnings.  It would be well worth spending some time with.  I bet you already have one of these volumes somewhere. It is the best-selling book of all time.

“Any action contrary to this instruction is at your own risk.”

I do like the idea of being “redeemed from all the difficulties”, too.  That day really is coming…

‘Will you walk into my parlor?’ said the Spider to the Fly,
‘Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you did spy;‘…
‘Oh no, no,’ said the Fly, ‘To ask me is in vain;
For who goes up your winding stair can ne’er come down again.‘”
(The Spider and the Fly” poem by Mary Howitt~1799-1888

“Subtlety may deceive you; integrity never will.”
(Oliver Goldsmith~Irish poet/author~1730-1734)

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


It was one of the most popular of the prizes the Lovely Lady offered to her piano students.  They would practice for at least twenty minutes every day, a fact attested to by their parent’s signature on a weekly form.  In return, the children would receive something the Lovely Lady called “music bucks”, one for each full practice session.  These little pieces of paper were photocopied facsimiles of money, not unlike the paper with which you buy and sell property in a Monopoly game.  The kids loved to earn music bucks!  They practiced like never before.  Never mind that in the end, each scrap of paper was only valued at something around three cents. You see, when they had acquired a significant number of the music bucks, they could shop through the gift counter at the music store, a veritable treasure trove of cheap Chinese-made items, each of with some connection to music.  Pencils with pianos or music symbols embossed on them, erasers in the shape of musical notes, treble clef shaped key rings…these and many more were there for them to purchase with their hard-earned music bucks.

Of the many prizes they could redeem with their little pieces of paper was one that a lot of students worked tirelessly for any number of weeks to claim as their own.  It was a little piano shaped bank.  The see-through plastic gizmo actually sorted coins for you!  You would drop in a coin and it would roll down the chute, stopping for an instant at one end before rolling back the other direction.  In the process, it would roll over a series of tubes, eventually dropping into the appropriate sized one.  The dime dropped into the first and smallest one, the penny next, then the nickel, and then the quarter.  The quarter had the furthest to roll, since it was the largest and couldn’t drop into any of the previous tubes.  Many times, I would place the bank out on top of the counter to demonstrate it for a student week after week, as they dreamed of the day when it would be theirs. “Plink!”  The penny would drop and roll down to its proper tube, tumbling to rest at the bottom of the second one.  “Plink!”  There went the quarter as it rolled on down to the very end, like the penny, tumbling to lie flat in its tube.  Every time, the sorter worked its magic, never allowing the penny to fall down the dime tube, nor the nickel to come to rest in the penny’s place.  We had to be sure that there were always plenty of these around to satisfy the demand.

Nifty little tool, huh?  I had a complaint with the system, though.  You see, the sorting method for this little bank was flawed.  How, you may ask?  It only used a single criterion for determining which coin dropped into which tube–its size.  Drop a Canadian penny into the slot and down the chute it rolled, right into the penny slot.  Then if you took those pennies to the bank to cash them in, the teller was likely to refuse to accept the Canadian coin.  It didn’t matter to the little piano-shaped bank if the coin were Japanese or Mexican, or even if it were a legal tender coin at all.  If the round disc you dropped down the slot was similar in size to an American coin, it would be deposited into the slot that matched that size and nothing else.  You might end up with a coin worth significantly less that the others in the same tube, or even with an object worth nothing at all.

Even worse, you could really cheat yourself if you made the error of dropping both of the coins above into the top of the piano-shaped-object.  “Why in the world would that matter?” you may ask.  It matters because of another criterion which the little bank couldn’t determine.

If you were only able to determine the size of the coin, you would make an error costing you many times the value of that quarter you think you see.  The coin on the right in both pictures is one minted after 1965…what we call a “sandwich coin”.  The silver content is negligible and the quarter is worth just twenty-five cents in legal exchange.  The one on the left however, was made in 1964 and is made of silver, about 80% pure.  Its real value today is over six dollars.  Yet, the little bank, with its limited scope, simply rolls it down to the last slot and cavalierly drops it down with all the twenty-five cent ones.  And, until someone with a keen eye and some sense of the value of silver comes along, anyone who looks at the stack of coins will evaluate it by simply multiplying the number of coins by the face value.

We live in a society, really in a world, which does the same thing as that little coin bank.  We determine the value of people with limited criteria, judging by skin color, or economic status, or even by geographic factors.  In the South, “Yankees” are scorned for their lack of sense and civility.  Conversely, to a Northerner, all Southerners are “rednecks”, ignorant and uncultured.  I grew up in a school system, as did many of you, where children were sorted into schools by their skin color and surnames.  Laws prohibit that now, but there is no reduction in the number of ways in which we pigeonhole each other individually and as people groups.

On a more personal level, we have measurements, usually unwritten and unspoken, by which we judge each other.  If any of us were asked, we would protest that we never would even consider doing such a thing.  But daily, I see the ways in which we do exactly that.

I remember a particular gentleman, who a few years ago, stood in front of me in my music store.  He needed a bath and as he spoke, gesturing passionately with his hands, my vision took in his fingernails on both hands, almost entirely consumed with fungus.His acne-scarred face was smiling at me, but his eyes showed the hurt, as he told me how he was treated in many of the local business establishments.  Most people refused to treat him with respect, or to deal fairly with him.  Although his mind was clear, and his communications skills adequate, because of his appearance,he was rejected and scorned.  My mind went back to Biblical times and the way that lepers were cast out of society.  His is not an isolated case.  I’m sure you know of many just like him.  Do you shake hands with them?  Hug them?  Treat them with respect?  Offer them the same recognition you would give to anyone else?

How do we determine the value of a human being?  The longer I consider it, the more I am forced to come back to the reality that our evaluation cannot be anything less than that of the One who created them, and us.  There are no circumstances under which a person of a different color is worth more, or less; no evaluation to be made by a body shape, be it slim or obese; no separation to be forced because of social status or financial situation.  We constantly look on these outward manifestations, but our Creator looks on the heart, seeing the pure silver, as well as the sandwich coin, and determining that both are of great worth to Him.  And, to all, He offers His grace and His love. How can we do any less?

Clink!  The coins still fascinate, as they roll down the chute.  But, I will no longer be lulled into thinking that the evaluation of worth based on size is the final word.  Perhaps, it is time for all of us to reconsider the other evaluations we hold dear as we walk along this path of life together.

However, if you have any silver quarters lying around, you are welcome to bring them by and drop them in my bank anytime…

“Then Peter replied, ‘I see very clearly that God shows no favoritism.  In every nation, he accepts those who fear Him and do what is right.'”
(Acts 10:34,35~NLT)

“One of the most striking differences between a cat and a lie is that the cat has only nine lives.”
(Mark Twain~American author and humorist~1835-1910)

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

The Blame Game

“Not a single dime more!” I said it one more time for emphasis and slammed down the telephone. Looking up, I saw the Lovely Lady gazing back at me with a look of sympathy on her face, but no…it wasn’t sympathy; it was more like worry. “Your blood pressure…” she said quietly. She was right. My heart was pounding, my palms sweaty, and I could feel the vein in my neck pulsing forcefully. As soon as I had a chance, I found a place to sit for a few moments and calm my screaming spirit. My body functions soon followed suit, but the anger took a little longer to subside.
I guess you probably need a little more of the story to sate your curiosity, don’t you? It’s not everyday that this guy talks to strangers with such force and emotion. Oh, I’ve had my share of these little talks with “customer service representatives”, but I work to keep the angry words to a minimum. Those kind of words don’t pay off, either for me, or for helping to sweet talk the person on the other end of the line.
The Lovely Lady had placed the invoice in front of me purposefully, earlier in the day. “Did you order this?” she inquired innocently. I looked at the item and immediately answered, “No, I did not!” Then I remembered. The suave young man had called, letting me know that he worked for the company from which I normally purchased some of our print advertising. We chatted for awhile and then he asked me if I wanted to renew my ad. I did. Except, it turns out that he meant renew it in a different media. I never caught on to what I was buying until it was too late; the verbal contract was recorded, and the grace period of three days (during which I could have backed out) was past. Now, the Lovely Lady was looking at me and holding a bill for $900.
Nine hundred dollars! I don’t have that amount of spare cash to waste on Internet advertising! I immediately called the company, begging and cajoling anyone who would talk with me. They were adamant. The grace period was past; there was no backing out. I grew more and more angry, although I did control my temper outwardly. There was no shouting, I didn’t say any words that I would be embarrassed to say in front of my mother. But I verbally unloaded on the hapless supervisor to whom I had eventually been handed off. It was to no avail. I fumed for the rest of the evening. The Lovely Lady stayed out of my way.
Late last night, as I sat, my imagination toying with different scenarios for a) getting out of the contract, and b)paying back those stubborn imbeciles, I realized something. I wasn’t really angry at the advertising company. I wasn’t really angry at their customer service rep, nor even at her supervisor. Oh, I’m still convinced that their business model is fatally flawed, but that’s not the point anymore. I was angry at ME!
I didn’t pay attention to the words the salesman said. I didn’t look at the written contract when it was delivered. On both occasions, I believed that I was fully aware of what I had done. There was no reason to second guess myself, no reason to suspect that I was in error at all. Why? Well, as anyone can tell you, I never make mistakes! I am infallible, knowing all, and seeing every attempt made to fool me. Well, that’s frequently my attitude anyway. Despite my numerous failures, and clumsiness at this game of life, I constantly imagine myself to be bulletproof. But it seems that each time I think I am standing firm, the ground beneath my feet begins to quiver anew, with today’s earthquake reminding me, sometimes in the most devastating of ways, that I am merely a man after all.
I was angry at me. But, I took it out on a convenient secondary target. I could rationalize that. It was they, after all who wouldn’t grant me a pardon, wouldn’t reduce the sentence for my stupidity. It was all their fault. My finger, instead of pointing to the idiot who actually messed up, pointed straight and accusingly at the ones who wouldn’t release me from the wages of my error.
You do see where this is headed, don’t you? Oh, we could beat around the bush and talk about different generations who blame their troubles on the one prior. We could waste time castigating classes of people who blame others more well off than they for their poverty. But, that would be missing the point, wouldn’t it?
Until we take responsibility for our own failures, our own shortcomings, our own sins, we are simply making noises into the wind, wasting our time and breath, accomplishing nothing. Until we are ready to say the words, and mean them, we will stay, frozen in place at the point of our error. My fault…I confess…I repent…I was wrong. They are not words of weakness, but of strength. They are not words that impair, but that heal. There is One who stands ready to release us from the prison of our sin. His “grace period” never expires. But, as long as we blame races, and classes, and powers, and Him, we make the choice to stay in a prison of our own making.
Do you remember the little game we played when we were kids? We called it “Who Stole The Cookie”, but it could have been called “The Blame Game”. (Accuser)“Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar? Johnny stole the cookie from the cookie jar.” (Johnny) “Who me” (Accuser) “Yes, you!” (Johnny) “Couldn’t be!” (Accuser) “Then who?” At this point, Johnny becomes the accuser and inserts someone else’s name in the little line of doggerel and the game goes on, and on, and on, and….Well, you get the picture. Did you ever stop to think about this? If one person–just one, were to say in reply, “Yes, It was me,” the game would be over instantly.
Do you think it’s time to break out of the pattern? Time to open up the prison doors? Time to stop the blame game? Confession is good for the soul. And, it hurts a lot less than you might think.
On a related thought, I’ll be paying for my stupidity for a few months to come. I’m going to remember who was responsible every time that check is written. Some of us learn more slowly than others…
Mea Culpa.
“Therefore, make it your habit to confess your sins to one another and to pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”
(James 5:16a~ISV)
“No one ever did, or ever will, escape the consequences of his choices.”
(Alfred Montapert~American motivational speaker)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Wrong Number?

When the stock order arrived at the music store yesterday, the Lovely Lady assigned me a task, explaining that she didn’t speak Spanish. While my mastery of “Spanglish”, (or what we used to call “Tex-Mex”) hardly qualifies me as bilingual, I was game to make the phone call she wanted to dodge. The gentleman had asked us to acquire a guiro (an ethnic rhythm instrument) for him, and she was remembering the difficulty he had with our language. After a moment or two of teasing her about being such a “Gringo”, I acquiesced (as she knew I would) and made the call.
The first voice on the telephone was that of a child, who spoke English without any hesitation. I asked to speak with “Ronald” and was told to wait, which I did. I could hear questions being asked in the background and even a little shouting, but I assumed that the family was trying to get the man’s attention. Then the phone went dead. I waited, wondering what was going on, and suddenly I heard ambient noise again, indicating that we still had a connection. In a moment, there was a man’s voice saying, “Bueno”, the customary telephone greeting among many Spanish speaking folks. Again, I asked for “Ronald” and was told in broken English that he was at work. Disappointed, I explained who I was and the name of my company, hoping to leave a message. Immediately, the man laughed and said, “Is me, Ronald.” Relieved, I delivered the news that his order had arrived, said goodby and hung up.
I have to wonder…What would make a person claim to not be who they are? Why would you tell someone that you are “gone to work”? The imaginative brain springs into action quickly, with an amazing array of possibilities. I won’t insist on any of them, but you may pick your own favorite. I’m trying to imagine a life where you are afraid to speak to someone on the telephone without first making them believe that you are someone else. Is the man hiding from someone? Has he been threatened? Maybe he’s on the most-wanted list and just wants to keep a step ahead of the FBI. Perhaps, it is nothing more than a fear of bill-collectors catching up to him. Regardless, “Ronald” feels the need to hide who he is from people he doesn’t know.
I do know one man who has his wife tell pesky salespeople that he is busy with customers, but that’s not quite the same thing. Come to think of it, that same man hangs up when he realizes that a call he has just answered is from a so-called robot caller, the call initiated by a computer, but quickly assumed by a salesperson when the phone is picked up. He says that he won’t talk to robots (or to their salespeople). If you call this guy, you need to speak quickly, or he may hang up on you, too! Again, not quite the same thing as telling someone that you are not the person you really are.
I am exaggerating the importance of the event, no doubt. It does lead to speculation though, as well as application. You knew the application would come, did you not? I cannot think of this poor man and his need to hide without also considering my own perceived need to hide. You may also realize that you have a propensity to hide from people, too. It is, after all, a time honored practice. Adam and his own Lovely Lady, in the garden, couldn’t stand the thought of their Creator knowing who they really were after their disobedience. They tried to hide from the One who had made them with flimsy coverings and empty excuses.
In my place of business the other day, a friend asked me if there was anything he could pray about for me. Realizing that he meant to pray right then and there, I quickly let him know that I was doing just fine. I wasn’t. I’m not. But if you ask me, I’ll tell you that the needy Paul, the sick Paul, is somewhere else. 
With bravado and swagger, we stand tall on the outside, all the while, wilting on the inside. I am terrified to let you know who I really am, to admit that the real me needs your prayer, your support. And, I will lie to you to keep the facade in place. “Paul’s doing just fine. Nothing to see here. Move on.”
Perhaps it’s time for us to let down our guard. We may find that a few people are shocked by who we really are, having been fooled by our act for a very long time. So be it. We may even find that some we think are friends will desert us. That would be sad. But, it will be sadder still if we never open up and admit who we have become. If we cannot be honest with the ones we know and love, how will we ever be honest with the world we seek to serve? Our deception not only acts as a shield to keep prying eyes from seeing in, it keeps us from seeing out, from understanding when others are in dire straits and needing our aid.
And, once again, I have preached my way through a weighty subject I never expected to broach. My apologies. You come for the stories and instead find a sermon. It’s funny, but life actually works that way too, doesn’t it? The events we encounter often lead us to truths we cannot avoid. Maybe, it’s time for me to shut up and let them lead instead.
I will make you a promise, though. If you give me a call sometime, I’ll let you talk to the real me. Unless, of course, you don’t start talking right away when I answer. 
I don’t talk to robots.
“Integrity is telling myself the truth. And honesty is telling the truth to other people.”
(Spencer Johnson~American author & motivational speaker)
“So stop telling lies. Let us tell our neighbors the truth, for we are all parts of the same body.”
(Ephesians 4:25~NLT)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.