A Note In The Wall

I received a note today. Here’s what it said:
“Dear Reader,
You should have worn a different shirt. You also could lose a little weight. Hopefully you know Jesus so there’s hope that you can lose that extra weight & not look like Santa Claus. Try to be nice to someone now and then. You just look like someone that would be rude.
I don’t know who wrote the note. It was written to me. Of that, I’m sure. Otherwise, why would I have been the one to randomly look in the chinks of the old brick wall in the pizzeria to see if there were any notes left there? I’ve never even considered doing that before, but tonight as I helped the Lovely Lady put up some decorations in the restaurant, I just had the thought that it might be a neat place to stash a note and there, sure enough, I found the note written on a torn and rolled up table napkin. It could only have been meant for me.
First of all, let me explain the shirt. I was wearing a dress shirt, when I should have been wearing a work shirt. And, I did get the Sunday shirt dirty as I worked up at the ceiling in the lighting grid, hanging ornaments. My dad wouldn’t be proud of me, because this is clear evidence that as a child I didn’t learn the lessons he tried to teach me about changing clothes before going out to play. I will just have to trust that the Lovely Lady will be patient as she has to spray the pre-wash solution on the spots. This problem though, I can fix.
As to the weight which needs to be lost…the author of the note was not the first anonymous person to inform me of this fact today. Earlier, as I completed the online health assessment required by my insurance company, I was told in no uncertain terms that I should try to lose twenty pounds. The insurance people even had the gall to tell me that my waist was “dangerously large”, along with some gobblety-goop about the ratio of my waist to my hips, and then…well, you get the picture. Believe me, I didn’t need this note to tell me anything about my weight. That said, I think I may be able to take care of this issue, as well.
Santa Claus??? That’s it! I’m shaving off my beard tomorrow! I knew the white in it made me appear old, but…Santa Claus? Okay, so the comment was still pertaining to my weight, but I can shave the beard a lot faster than I can lose the weight. It’s a shame that all makeovers aren’t as easy as this one promises to be.
I’m not really sure that I want to tackle the last issue at all, but I will admit the writer does make a valid point. I can be rude.Just yesterday, the Lovely Lady suggested that it wasn’t appropriate for me to address every slow driver ahead of me on the two-lane road as an idiot. Of course, this was immediately after I had flipped my bright lights at the backside of the cars in front of me. They were, after all, going at least five miles per hour under the posted speed limit. The nerve!
I wonder what it is about me though, that told the note’s writer I might be rude. They were not wrong. I just want to know what gave me away. Of course, I know that when my face is set in a frown, as it seems to be more frequently these days, the message presented to the people who see me is the promise of a stinging tongue. Even Solomon knew that in his day. He suggested that just as the north wind brought the rain, so a caustic tongue would bring a bitter countenance, or appearance.
This last issue–the problem of being rude and unkind–will take much longer to address than the beard, or the weight, and certainly longer than changing my shirt. I think that I will need to pay close attention to this one. The cure is sure to be one which will take much care and diligence on my part. It is indeed, a heart matter. I won’t be able to tackle this on my own, but I already have the answer, it’s just a matter of making application. As the author of the note suggested, I do know Jesus. The grace with which I’ve been blessed is intended to extend to all I come in contact with. A new creature…that’s how we are described when we’ve experienced His grace.
Now, this is where the rubber meets the road and we get to see if I’ll allow the grace to flow to others. Time will tell. I really don’t want to be a rude person, or even to seem like someone who could be.
There may have to be more notes before this is done. I wonder where the next one will turn up.
I just hope it tells a different story.
“The north wind brings forth rain, And a backbiting tongue, an angry countenance.” 
(Proverbs 25:23~NASB)
“I know that my face ain’t no star.
But I don’t mind it, cuz I’m behind it.
It’s the folks out front that get the jar!”
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Can I Sing You a Song?

“Hey, man. Can I sing you a song?” I’ve heard the request before, but the circumstances are usually a little different. I nod my head and give the young man my full attention. Well, maybe not my full attention. You see, there are other people in the music store and they are bound to wonder what’s going on, so I’m a little preoccupied as I gaze at the boy and his too-small guitar.
The family had taken the place by storm just moments before, sweeping in and demanding that I put a new set of strings on the cheap Oriental-built half-size instrument. It was hardly worthy to be called a guitar. With a knife, someone had scratched the word “dorkville” into the finish on top of the shabby instrument. I noted that the bridge had been reattached to the body with “gorilla” glue, a slimy, expanding substance which the makers claim to be “made for the toughest jobs on earth”. I’m not a fan, simply because of the mess it invariably causes. On this instrument, it didn’t seem out of place. At first, I was tempted to tell the matronly woman who had requested my immediate attention to the task of replacing strings that I can’t work on such a sad example for a guitar, but my attention was drawn to the face of the boy who placed the instrument carefully into my hands. The tell-tale signs were there in his face…there was no question that the boy was mentally challenged. But, it was the pleading look in his eyes that got to me, almost as if he had anticipated my objections and was begging me to overlook the flaws in his beloved musical companion. I complied with the woman’s loud instructions, but truth be told, I simply wanted to make sure that the boy had a playable instrument when he left. I installed the strings.
As I completed the task, I gently handed the guitar back to the boy and took the lady’s money. One of their party headed out the door, but then the boy made his request. I could see an apologetic look on the two remaining ladies’ faces, but I encouraged the young “musician” to go ahead, so he launched into his song. My careful tuning of the guitar was of no consequence, I quickly noted. His left hand went to one position on the neck, carefully pressed down three strings into a non-chord and never moved for the entire performance. The right hand clutched a pick which was banged back and forth against the mono-tonal strings and the boy sang, rather appropriately, in about the same manner, a song which took about five minutes to unfold. The piece which he had memorized word for word, was a current hit song. It had crude language and he mispronounced many of the words, but he worked his way inexorably through it, never faltering as the phone rang behind me (I ignored it) or even as a customer scurried out the door (she didn’t want to be drawn into the odd performance, perhaps).
Throughout the boy’s recitation–it could hardly be called singing–his mother (perhaps, grandmother) gazed at him without a hint of embarrassment and without speaking. He finally finished with a flourish of his picking hand and looked at me. “Well?” I murmured my thanks and told him I was glad that he had his guitar back in working condition. He grinned at me and headed out the door. Not one of the customers in the store said a word more about the “performance”.
You know, recently, I’ve been thinking more about the way we respond to people. A friend mentioned this afternoon that he appreciated that I don’t make a habit of “qualifying” people in my store. We were talking about the sales technique of sizing up a customer before determining what to sell them, but he explained that the statement extended to my personal reaction to people too. I thanked him and told him that he was wrong. I do qualify people. We all do to a certain extent. I work at not doing it, but there is no doubt that our human nature inclines us to determine what we can get from the person standing in front of us, when we are deciding how we’ll treat them. Frequently, when we don’t think that we will reap a benefit, we dismiss the person. I know that I do.
As I pondered my friend’s remark, my thoughts ran back to the boy’s song this morning. It was a crude country song, with words which I will not repeat here, but the message struck me anew. Although you’d never recognize it, the song tells the story of the prodigal son, the singer going to exotic locales with money and friends, and coming home again because the friends desert him when the money runs out. I know that the story of the prodigal son is told for a different reason, but I wonder if Jesus didn’t have more than one conclusion in mind. As I consider tonight, I’m thinking that in part, the tale was intended to influence how we respond to people who have varying abilities to reward our attention.
We are naturally attracted to the beautiful, to the erudite, and to the well-off. We, just as naturally, find ways to avoid the poor, the dirty, and the illiterate. We may say that we don’t, and may even make an effort to include them in our interactions, but at the end of the day, we want to spend time with people who offer what we find attractive. We don’t want to spend time with those who can give us nothing and only take what we have to offer. I’m thinking that we can do better.
Today, I resolve to listen to, and be impressed with, the performances of those who cannot wow me with their talent. I resolve to spend just as much time with folks who will always be needy as I spend with those who fill my needs. I’m not sure how well I’ll do at it, but it is a goal to which we all should aspire. Our God, we are told, is no respecter of persons. How do we dare to be satisfied with anything less?
I hope the young man finds better material to sing. I hope that he will also find someone who can help him to learn a chord or two along the way. I somehow think that we all need what he needed today, which was simply to be accepted for who he is and to have his “gifts” appreciated without criticism.
I’m hoping that someone will be there someday to listen to my song, when I’m ready to sing it. How about it? Can I sing you a song?
“For God does not show favoritism.”
(Romans 2:11~NIV)
“Adios and vaya con Dios,
Going home now to stay…
Life is good today. Life is good today.”
(“Toes”~recorded by Zac Brown Band)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Oh The Places…

“Do you folks have a reservation?”  The haughty young man looked suspiciously at us, quite obviously assured of the reply he would get.  We didn’t make him wait.  “No.  We heard that you had great food.  Will it be a problem to get a table?”  We glanced around.  There was not another customer in the Italian restaurant at this early hour, but he dutifully checked his chart before replying.  “No, I think we can get you in.  I just need to see which table would be best.”  In a moment, we were shepherded to a table in the back corner, clumsily situated in front of an alcove which held a shelf full of folded cloth napkins.  There was also an electronic keyboard shoved willy-nilly back in the little cubbyhole.

The sign at the entrance had stated clearly, “Appropriate dress is required.”  We, assuming that this was akin to the more common “no shirt, no shoes, no service” signs we were accustomed to, had walked right in–she in her blue jeans and I in my khakis, and both wearing reasonably clean shirts with no holes in them.  We’re still not sure, but perhaps this wasn’t what was intended by “appropriate dress”.  It could be that the corner was their way of shunning us, as well as hiding us from the other, non-existent customers.  At any rate, it was so dark that one needed to use the ambient glow of the cell-phone’s screen to read the menu (prices all in a simple numeral, with no dollar signs).  No one would notice us here, so we settled in to enjoy our meal.

Apart from an “excuse me” or two offered by wait-staff needing napkins from the shelf, we were largely undisturbed, except at proper intervals by our waiter.  She, while not hopeful of much from us, was attentive.  When we left, it seemed that her thanks indicated that we might have surpassed her meager expectation.  I’ve always prided myself in the practice of under-promising and over-delivering in the business arena, but that hadn’t been my intention tonight.  Alas, some things are simply out of our control.

I’m not going to give you a review of the food or the service at the restaurant; not going to suggest that you avoid going there if you are just plain folks like us.  I only mention the occasion to spend a few moments speaking of uncomfortable circumstances.  You see, I find myself more at ease in dining establishments where the waitresses call me “sweetie” and keep pouring coffee interminably into my empty cup with a “there you go, hon” and bringing the plastic pitcher to tip sidewise over the Lovely Lady’s tea glass, as they murmur a  “happy to help, dear” to her.  The light floods the tables and there are no dim corners or shadowy niches in which to hide unsavory characters.  On this night, I am as uncomfortable in this restaurant as the staff seems to be to have me here.

The Lovely Lady and I have taken a weekend to go to the city and “relax”.  I’d rather close the store and sleep late at home, but she knows that sooner or later I’d be back in the store working, so we go away.  It is the first of several uncomfortable things we’ll endure.  The meal in the dark corner is the last straw.  I’m ready to go home and the gloomy thoughts begin to buzz around in my head.  Then, I see him.  The piano player.  His name is Frank.  Frank gets to sit in the corner, too.  The odd fellow, about my age, slinks into the cubbyhole and begins shifting things around, after a few moments glancing apologetically at the back of the Lovely Lady’s head and then, looking at me, assures me that the speaker will be out in the hall, so it won’t be too loud for us.  I smile and tell him that it will be fine either way.  We like music.  The momentary smile on his face is gone as quickly as it comes.  He is uncomfortable here, too.

As Frank finally gets things situated and begins to play, his discomfort is made even more clear.  He sets his glasses on his nose, with lenses as thick as the bottoms of old-fashioned coke bottles. Since it is an Italian restaurant, he seems to think that he should begin with a song from that country.  As he commences, his music blows in the cold breeze which pushes through the corner every time the door on the other side of the partition is opened,  the lamp he has situated beside the piano illuminates the pages almost not at all, and he squints through his coke-bottle glasses to see the unfamiliar music.  After he struggles through the song, not skillfully, he almost angrily tosses the pages to the floor and then begins another tune, this time ignoring the necessity to stay within the geographical region of the world.  Ah!  Now the music flows from his fingertips, as he reminisces musically about his “huckleberry friend” and sails up “Moon River”.  And so it goes for the whole time we are seated there.  The obligatory Italian pieces are stilted and halting, pages of printed music blowing and slapped into place again throughout, and the music he knows and loves flows from his heart with no need of printed music, played smoothly and skillfully, as his fingers find their way unerringly to the right keys for the melodies and chords which make up the beautiful harmonies in the songs.

We walk out of the restaurant…I, amazed that I have avoided any obvious faux pas in the use of my silverware or napkin…the Lovely Lady probably happy about my avoidance of the same, and the music follows us out into the night.  Frank has reminded me that we all, every one of us, have things which must be done even though they are out of our comfort zone.  He had to play the unfamiliar and difficult tunes when he preferred the comfortable, old songs which he knew and loved.  It wasn’t easy.  He did it anyway.

Like our time away from our business and our visit to the posh restaurant, life is not always smooth sailing down familiar streams and river branches.  At times, we make our way, cautiously (and not a little frightened) onto the wide ocean to venture, not where we will, but where we must.

I have no great spiritual gems to share tonight.  Sometimes, all we have are the simple truths which have guided men for all of history.  Stagnant waters are that way because they never go anywhere.  Growth and progress occur as we move out of our accustomed paths, applying what we have learned and absorbing new lessons, to take on bigger and unfamiliar tasks.  The Teacher made it plain as He told His followers the story of servants who were faithful in small things.  Their reward was always to be given bigger and more difficult tasks, never to remain doing the small things again and again.

I’m not sure I like that a lot.  I’m working at applying it in my life anyway.

Push out away from the shore!  It’s what the Builder designed your vessel to do.  You’ll never realize your potential until you move out of the place of comfort and into the place of opportunity.

Oh.  You might want to keep your coat and tie or formal frock handy  to be able to get into the places you’ll need to go, too.  Sometimes, appropriate dress is required.

“The person who goes farthest is generally the one who is willing to do and dare.  The sure-thing boat never gets far from shore.”
(Dale Carnegie~American lecturer~1888-1955)

“The master said, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!'”
(Matthew 25:23~NLT)

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

Catching my Breath Again

The problem started about five or six years ago.  Most people I know with this affliction have it when they are children and then it lessens in severity as they age, but leave it to me to wait until my waning years to acquire an infirmity that I should have outgrown instead of grown into.  I have asthma.  Oh, not the full-blown, struggle to inhale, think you’re going to black out, wheezing asthma, but enough to cause shortness of breath and an annoying tight cough, which can’t be relieved by regular cough medicines.

I’ve got my father to thank for it…well really, his father…come to think of it, I shared it with my son too, so there’s enough paternal blame to go around on this one.  Heredity seems to have played its part here.  My father had to take an early retirement due to respiratory problems brought on by allergens in the workplace.  Long before that, his dad (my Grandpa Phillips) was stricken with emphysema, a lung disease far more serious than my touch of bronchial asthma.

I thought about Grandpa recently.  I had helped the Lovely Lady with a reception for a friend of ours and was carrying boxes out to the car.  The extreme change in temperature from inside the building to the frosty air outside, was enough to bring on another attack and before I knew it, I was straining to breathe.  I felt a kinship with Grandpa that I had never thought about before, as I saw him in my mind’s eye, struggling to breathe from the exertion of walking 10 feet across the room.  He would stop and lean against a table, or chair, or desk, with his chest heaving, the over-developed chest muscles forcing air in and out of the diseased lungs.  I must admit that as a child, I didn’t empathize well.  This was just how he had always been in my memory, and I assumed that it was his own fault.  Grandpa had been a heavy smoker, first rolling his own and then as the hands became shaky, purchasing them in the pack–his brand of choice, filter-less Camels.  A he-man’s cigarette if ever there was one.  But for a person predisposed to breathing issues, as seems likely, the habit was a slow killer.  I’m not a smoker and my problem doesn’t begin to approach the gravity of his, but just for a few moments this evening, I felt an empathy, a bond with my Grandpa that I never considered when he was living.  And, I missed him again.

Grandma and Grandpa lived across the street from me when I was a kid.  What a great blessing, to be able to grow up so close to your grandparents that you can run across the street and sit with them on the screened-in front porch, or maybe watch  an episode of “I Love Lucy” or “Gunsmoke” on television with them. Two channels on TV then, with the signal literally coming through the airwaves and being picked up by a pair of “rabbit ears” on top of the tiny black & white set.  Every time an airplane would approach the local airport (we were in the flight path), the static and wavy lines across the screen would interrupt the program.  But the best thing was listening to Grandpa tell stories about people he knew.  He loved to talk–even talked about talking…“So, I says to him, says I, …”, was one of my favorite phrases I heard him use when describing a conversation with someone else.  If I weren’t such a language snob, I would incorporate that into my own speaking.  Maybe it’s best to keep that as a memory instead.  But I think I get my penchant for story-telling from him and, from where I’m standing, that’s not a bad legacy.  The reader is free to agree or not…

The asthma won’t go away, but I carry an inhaler with me when it flares up and a couple of puffs on it usually relieve the symptoms within a minute or two.  I’m not happy to have the problem, but tonight, I’m actually a little grateful for the walk down memory lane.  We’ve all got memories that live in our heads and hearts; some sad, like Grandpa’s ultimately fatal affliction, but also some happy ones too, like my memories of life with him so close.  There are times when I think it would be great if all our memories were like the latter, but then again, I’m reminded of a song I heard as a teenager which reminded us that hardships make us value the good times more; just as we cherish coming home because we had to be away in the first place.  I think memories are often like that, the bittersweet giving way to the heartwarming, actually making the happy occasions seem more bright.

In a day or two, we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving, another of the memory-fraught times of the year for most of us.  I’m going to be remembering my Grandpa’s dinner prayer as we approach this holiday.  “Our Gracious Heavenly Father, we thank thee for the many blessings which Thou hast bestowed upon us…”  When I was a boy, it was only remarkable in that the language never changed.  As an aging man, now a grandfather myself, the message of those words has lasted well beyond his mortal years and still resonates today.

“Many blessings” indeed.

“To live in hearts we leave behind, is not to die”
(Thomas Campbell, from his poem “Hallowed Ground”)

Edited from a post originally published in November, 2010.

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

Hands Open Wide

“I haven’t seen Iowans this excited since the night Frank Gotch and Strangler Lewis lay on a mat for three and a half hours without moving a muscle. Ooh! That was exciting!” The bumbling Mayor Shinn of River City delivers those incomprehensible words in “The Music Man”, a musical comedy I first saw some thirty years ago. I still don’t fully understand the statement. In the same breath, the old fellow described the most boring event I could imagine and then, still talking about the same yawn-inspiring wrestling match, calls it exciting. Talk about a non-sequitur!
What’s that? Oh yes. I see that hand back there…what is a “non-sequitur”? Okay, let me give this a shot. The word “sequitur” is from a Latin word, meaning “it follows” (as in a sequence). Sequitur is used to mean that one idea leads into the next. The addition of the negative “non” ahead of the word, simply means that the statement isn’t logical, since one does not automatically follow the other. If I were to say, “I hated the food at that restaurant. I can’t wait to eat there again,” you would call it a non-sequitur.
I can’t imagine a more unprofitable way to spend an evening than watching two grown men lying on a wrestling mat, entangled in each other’s limbs, not moving. It might almost be worse than a scoreless baseball game which is entering the fourteenth inning. Not what I would describe as a spell-binder. Certainly, if I were watching either event on television today, I would click the remote to move to a more engaging program.
And now, realizing that one would likewise not use the word “exciting” to describe this blog to this point, I’ll move on rather than wrestling with the words any further. But, now that I’m sure you understand the term, I do want to mention a seeming non-sequitur which occurred earlier today in an encounter with my son-in-law.
I had an argument with the man. I couldn’t be happier. Normally, it would not please anyone for me to argue with my son-in-law, especially my daughter. But I am, as they say, tickled pink. It was simply a joy to me that we had the disagreement. 
I can see the confusion written on your forehead right about now. If you follow my posts regularly, you will remember that I have foresworn arguing. Realizing that I often get carried away and cause pain, I am shunning the practice of verbal disputes to the best of my ability. This particular non-sequitur is almost disturbing, isn’t it? Okay–I’ll put you out of your misery and explain.
His phone rang right after lunch today. As I heard his side of the conversation, it was clear that someone needed assistance. After concluding the call, he simply asked me if I had a car jack he could borrow. I did, but I offered to come along with my floor jack to help, if I could, not knowing the people he was aiding at all. It turned out to be a young couple whom he had assisted before, and probably will again. One thing led to another, as they seem to do, and before we knew it, we were arguing about who was going to purchase a new tire for the couple. Oh, it wasn’t a violent, nor a combative discussion; each of us simply wanted to be the one to help.
The fact that this young man loves to help folks who are in need is not news to me. We have had many previous discussions about the ways in which he does this daily in his business and personal life. It’s just that I enjoyed actually being a part of the process today. We argued and I couldn’t be happier.
Who won the argument? We both did. Oh, just one of us purchased the tire, but we both won, because the young couple now has a working vehicle, so the man can go to work this week. They are struggling, but he istrying. It doesn’t matter who spent the money to help. The desire itself indicates the willingness to fulfill the basic instructions of our Lord. “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy, and to the poor in your land.”
Why am I especially happy to see my son-in-law with such a solid grasp on this precept? First, I am pleased that my daughter is blessed to be the wife of a man who seeks to live uprightly. Second, it virtually guarantees that the understanding of our responsibility to serve is going to be passed on to my grandchildren. And, I see very few things of more importance than passing on our faith and the practice thereof to the generations which come after us. I’m pretty sure that the youngsters can hardly miss out on this lesson.
Non-sequiturs aren’t always bad. Being a logical thinker in most areas, however, I’ll probably continue to work at keeping them to a minimum. I certainly won’t be describing long wresting matches, in which no one moves, as “exciting”. And I know that arguments which lead to both sides winning are few and far between, but I’ll savor this one for awhile.
I guess you might say that sometimes, iron does sharpen iron. 
Perhaps we’ll argue again. I’d like that.
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.”
(Hebrews 10:24~ISV)
“Logic is a systemic method of coming to the wrong conclusion with confidence.”
 © Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Eaten Up

“Paul, this is a wonderful guitar…” It was only the beginning of a longer conversation with this excellent guitar player, I could tell. No doubt, there would be a “but” coming very soon. I didn’t have to wait long. “…But, they haven’t done a good job in grinding the frets along the edges of the fingerboard. They just tear my fingers to pieces!” It is a complaint with which I’ve become quite familiar in recent years. With machines doing the tasks which used to be done by manual labor, some of the rough edges remain, even on the most pricey of guitars. The ends of the metal pieces to which the strings are pressed down on the fingerboard can be pretty vicious, unless they are smoothed down with a file.
“Well, Jim…” I started with a grin and he knew he was going to be the recipient of some silly play on words, a trademark of many of my conversations. “…You see, that’s how it works. If you insist on fretting, it will simply eat you up.” I was definitely more amused by my wittiness than he, but he managed at least one polite laugh before launching into his complaint once more. We spent some time in serious contemplation of the problem, determining the solution before he left, but tonight, I’m left to wonder about the truth of my witticism.
I spent a few moments in research about the etymology of the word “fret” this evening. How did such diverse meanings come to apply to the same word? On the one hand, we have a simple arrangement of metal bars which determine the pitch of many stringed instruments when the string is pressed down upon them; on the other, a word which we take to mean worrying. As I searched, I could find no connection whatsoever between the two usages. When used in the latter sense, to worry, the word derives from an old English word, which actually means “to devour”. The metal pieces on a guitar probably got their name from what we also call fretwork, interlaced pieces of material which can form geometric patterns. At any rate, the origin of this usage is an old French word meaning “fetter” or “bound”. Both are pretty telling.
I have been fretting a lot recently. No, I don’t mean that I have done anything in relation to the guitar fingerboard. I mean that I’ve been eaten up, or devoured, with concerns. There have been many opportunities. The national election just passed has caused more than a normal amount of stress. The Lovely Lady’s mother has been doing poorly. We’ve had an unusually high number of folks through our doors in recent days who are in financial distress and hoping for help. There is never quite enough money in our own bank account to be assured that there is no crisis coming. The list goes on and on. It doesn’t help that I am having another medical assessment next week. I am keeping a list mentally…and fretting. I don’t intend to do so. It comes naturally.
Before we go too far down that road, you know, the discussion of the sin of worry and what we should do to have victory over the mindset, will you let me chase a rabbit for a minute? Who knows? We may never get back to this part of the discussion (or never have to).
I’m thinking that the guitar might be a better point of discussion anyway. Okay, all you non-guitar-nerds, bear with me for a little while. What I’m realizing is that the guitar is a great analogy for this discussion anyway. Here’s what I mean. When a person first begins to learn the instrument, there is a good bit of discomfort involved. The way you play a guitar is to push the strings down to the fingerboard at the correct fret, commonly called “fretting” the guitar. If done correctly, the motion produces a clear note from the string. Many students complain vociferously about the pain caused by this action. Some even quit because of it. I sell a largely unnecessary product called “Finger-ease” for just this complaint. Spray a little of it on the strings and it all feels better–for a little while. The problem is that, sooner or later, you have to work through the discomfort and toughen up the fingertips anyway. I think that perhaps a better method is simply to keep your eye on the goal. If all you do while practicing is to concentrate on the fretting, the pressure, of the strings, you will almost certainly be discouraged and drop out. Then again, if you realize that the pressing down, the temporary discomfort, is just that–temporary–and that the goal you are working for is the beautiful music which will come from the effort and the suffering, you won’t be discouraged and eaten up with concern.
I was also reminded just today that our problems, the ones which we think are insurmountable and therefore, worthy of fretting, are almost always relatively unimportant. The wake-up call came in the form of, well…a phone call. I answered the toll-free line this morning to hear the cheerful voice of one of our long-time customers, asking how I was doing. “Oh, just so-so,” I began, ready to unload on him, given half a chance. The chance never came. “I’m just happy to be able to call you today.” He replied. “I’ve spent the last ten weeks in the ICCU ward of the hospital and I’m so glad to be home!” Open heart surgery which hadn’t been as trouble-free as hoped was his problem. Mine? I have a sore throat. Then he stopped. “You said, ‘…just so-so.’ What’s going on?” My shame was palpable. “Nothing at all. I’m doing great! How can I help you today?” We completed our business and then I sat and counted my blessings for awhile.
So. Are your problems nothing? Do they not deserve consideration? That is not my message at all. I will simply say it this way. Our problems are just as much a part of the great masterpiece, which is being painted by the Master Painter, as are the tremendous blessings which we enjoy. But, if we concentrate on the pain and stress, we fret and lose sight of the bigger picture. A focus on the negative which comes on occasion causes blindness to the great good which is happening all of the days of our lives. (“Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me…”)
I think that I can do this. There is beautiful music to be made. I’m not fretting, I’m playing the melodies and harmonies which have been written on the pages of my life, long before I began to learn the tune. You’ve got a part to be played also. Maybe someday we can make music together.
May it be a sweet, sweet sound in His ears.
“For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”
(Romans 8:18~KJV)
“I was sad that I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.”
(Old Persian proverb)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Dead Weight

The curious young man–we’ll call him Andy–is snooping through the back room at the music store. I’ve talked about the back room before, you know. It’s basically a combination of a hoarder’s stash and Aladdin’s Cave, except that you can’t get in by shouting “Open Sesame!” I reluctantly allow a few of my customers to wander through the stacks of old merchandise, once in awhile. It can be a little embarrassing sometimes.
Andy is having a great time–exclaiming admiringly as he picks up an old microphone from the seventies, and then wondering aloud about the purpose for a wood-bending iron, a strange-looking tool which heats up to aid in shaping the sides of a guitar under construction. I am amused as he digs into boxes and pushes aside empty cases to get at the treasure/trash behind them. Then he finds it. The box of old strings. No, not string such as is used to tie up things or put around fingers as a memory aid, but strings which go on guitars and violins and banjos to give them a voice. This box is a hodge-podge of different brands and sizes and types, mostly part-sets which started out as brand new merchandise hanging on the slat-wall, or peg-board (in the years before slat-wall). I would need a single string which was not in stock and, not having time to wait, would impatiently take one string out of a set of four or six or twelve, intending to replace the single string later, but I never got around to it. The box is crammed full of such amputated groupings of strings now, still visited occasionally in hopes that a string I am seeking may be found. It usually isn’t.
But, as Andy digs, he exclaims again. “Hey! This is neat! How old is that?” The young man holds up an orange and black box, at which I grin. “I don’t really know,” I reply sheepishly. You see, that box of strings, along with a few others in the larger box he is pawing through, has been around longer than I have worked here. This month marks thirty-five years since I went to work for the Lovely Lady’s father, and these strings were in the music store before that historic landmark in my life, so many years ago. I tell him this and he is amazed, as well as confused. “Do you ever sell any of them at all?” he asks. I shake my head. No. He is more confused. “Well, why do you keep them?” I shake my head again, this time in confusion myself. I don’t know. They are just here. I have sorted the box of strings any number of times, and searched through it for a necessary replacement many more times than that. I’ve never once considered discarding the package of strings, at one time a full set of six guitar strings, now, with only three of them left–an obsolete relic from the past which will never again be of any use to any guitarist on the face of the earth.
Don’t laugh. You’ve got them in your own space too. Oh, not guitar strings, but I know that there are remnants of your past in your closet, or back room, or attic. Canvas tennis shoes, from your youth, now gone beyond recall (the youth, that is). They’ll never be worn again, but you can’t discard them. I know a guy who keeps the steering wheel from his first car up on a shelf in his garage. It won’t ever guide a car down the road again, but nothing could entice him to dispose of it. I could name almost any common item and someone reading this will wonder for just a second, “How does he know what I have in my closet?” Can you tell me why it is that we hold on to our past and can’t let go of the mementos, no matter how silly?
I have to admit that, as I took a photo of the old string package this evening, I was carried back, all those thirty-five years, in my thoughts. I have a smile on my lips as I write this, the memory of my late father-in-law, as he taught me the rudiments of guitar repair and adjustment, bringing fond remembrances of my early days of working for him. Not all that comes from saving old things is bad.
But, then again, I don’t want you to miss the point that sometimes, collecting old memories can get in our way, too. It was only two days after Andy’s visit last week that I was again made aware of how stupid it is to keep junk hanging around. The Lovely Lady, in assisting a customer, needed an item off of the shelf in the back room. As she tugged the guitar strap out, first I heard her exclaim in disgust and then came the great crash of an object toppling off the shelf onto the floor. It took a long time to pick up the strings and put them back into a semblance of order in the box. Tonight, in my head, I’m weighing the benefits of keeping them against the disadvantages of discarding the entire box. There is a strong possibility that the strings will not be around to see the next thirty-five years.
There is something of a more serious nature for us to learn from this amusing anecdote, though. I’m wondering what else we harbor, perhaps not physically, but emotionally and spiritually, which has the potential to get in our way, to slow us down. I’ve shared many memories with you here, but there are just as many which are too painful, too ugly, to share. They still come to mind, again and again. Those memories have the potential to (and sometimes do) slow me down and cripple me. The guilt and the shame are very real to me, sometimes many years after the actual event. Sure, I know that forgiveness is mine as God’s grace has been extended, but in my thoughts, the individual actions weigh heavily and keep me from the joy that should be mine. Maybe that’s true for you too.
Here is the conclusion of the matter (as the Preacher would say): Just like the ancient and obsolete trash I have held on to year after year, the clear solution to our shameful memories is simply to open our hands and let them go. They are just as obsolete and useless as the physical junk sitting on the shelf in my back room and, truth be known, more harmful to us and those around us. I wonder if that’s what the Apostle was thinking about when he suggested that we throw off the weight which hinders us and then run the race which is set before us.
I think it’s about time that we get into training again.
But, I’m also wondering if the Lovely Lady might let me keep a few of those old strings around…just in case. No, I guess not. And, it’s probably just as well anyway…
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
(Hebrews 12:1~NIV)
“The ideal is in thyself. The impediment too is in thyself.”
(Thomas Carlyle~Scottish historian/essayist~1795-1881)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Miss Barrett’s Hoax

I listen to the beautiful music as I consider a suitable subject on which to spend time tonight, but the music intrudes. No. Intrudes is not the right description. It’s more as if the music enters the stream of thought and hijacks it, carries it away. But, I always listen to music when I write, having started the habit many years ago. I was just a junior in high school…
Miss Barrett understood teenagers. By that, I mean that she realized that most of us had a healthy disdain for poetry. But, she was an English teacher and the curriculum makes a requirement of an English teacher: she must instruct her classes in the hated art form. For us, it was a fate worse than death to receive an assignment which included any hint of the word “poem”. The groans would begin with the first mention of the vile thing and would increase exponentially with each subsequent repetition of the word. Because of that, although I would assume that her preference might have run to the classics, she had determined to take a path which was crafted to draw in our sixteen and seventeen year-old minds and coax us into enjoying poetry, waiting to spring the trap until no retreat on our part was possible.
The spinster teacher invited us to bring our favorite popular recordings (why yes, they were vinyl records!) to listen to while we worked in class. Then, sneakily, she would begin to talk about the lyrics of the songs being played, asking us to discuss the meter and the rhyme, along with the overall theme of the poe…Oh, I almost said the dirty word! Well, you get the idea. Before we knew it, we had worked our way through lyrics of James Taylor and Jim Croce, to say nothing about David Gates and his band called Bread. Linda Ronstadt and Three Dog Night, along with the Beatles and Carly Simon soon were tackled. More followed and still more. Before the end of the year, that lady had us asking to talk about poetry!
I remember taking one of my wandering treks through the surrounding countryside sometime during that year, quoting and singing the lyrics to several of the hit songs which that band called Bread had recorded. I memorized poetry! Not because I was forced to do it, but because I wanted to. Surprisingly, the other day when one of those songs came on the “oldies station” as we drove down the road, I sang the words right along with Mr. Gates. Forty years later, I still remember the lyrics! That sneaky Miss Barrett made me like poetry! Worse, she made me want to commit it to memory.
But tonight, the song I am listening to ends and I am jerked back to reality. I thought I was safe, listening to classical music. I chose one of my favorite pieces, the Piano Concerto #2, by Sergei Rachmaninoff. It is, in my opinion, one of the most hauntingly beautiful pieces of music written. Surely no lyrics would intrude into this! But just the same, there are words going through my head…”All by myself, don’t wanna be all by myself anymore…” I first heard the pop song in 1975, having no idea at that time that the melody was based on this spectacular work, written by the composer around 1900. As I listened tonight to the masterful treatment of the piece by the pianist, accompanied by the gorgeous tonality of the strings and wind instruments in the orchestra, I couldn’t keep the words from injecting themselves at the appropriate (or inappropriate) place. No doubt, this is still the work of that sneaky English teacher, Miss Barrett.
I will readily admit that finally, as the years have passed, I can openly enjoy poetry. It doesn’t even have to be set to music, although that helps me to remember the words. The good lady’s tactics worked. She took a poetry-hater and made me enjoy poems. An examination of her scam, her stratagem if you will, gives us some instruction for use in other walks of life. She took that which was odious to us and hid it inside something we loved. No one had to ask us to like the pop music of the day. We were already hooked. What she recognized was that we would sit still for lessons seemingly built on the foundation of the music we loved. All the while, unbeknownst to us, construction was underway on a very different foundation–the foundation of literature. Through a simple ruse, a little sleight of hand, the deed was done and we were hers.
But, the device works both in constructive and in destructive ways, does it not? The pet is ill, so we hide the medication in a piece of meat, a Trojan horse of sorts, to deliver the death blow to the illness inside. None the wiser, the pet devours the proffered treat, easily swallowing the pill which would have been next to impossible to force down the animal’s gullet otherwise. Thus, the cure is achieved. But on the other hand, the casino in the neighboring town offers luxurious accommodations and gourmet meals at bargain prices to lure the patrons in, enticing them further with visions of easy money and grand winnings. The eventual result is disappointment for many and outright disaster for quite a number, leaving them impoverished. The sugar-coated offer hides a price which is much too high for all of them.
The same tactic. Vastly different results.
I can’t help but be reminded of the words spoken by the Teacher, as He sent His disciples away. “I am sending you out as sheep among the wolves.” If He had stopped there, we might wonder at His cruelty, leaving them to be consumed by the evil ones they would find in the wide world. He continued though, “Be as wise as serpents, but harmless as doves.” They are words for us to live by today also. We are to be on our guard against the Trojan horses, the artifices of those who would entrap us, all the while seeking no harm to them.
Like Miss Barrett, we seek ways to teach and to win the trust of those around us, to do good for them. All the while, we must be on our guard against those who are only out for their own good and for our harm.
I promise that I will try to stifle my urges to quote song lyrics to you. But if the music to “If” by Bread comes on the radio, you’ll see (and possibly hear) me bellowing out the lyrics right along. Who knew poetry could be so much fun?
“Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down
In a most delightful way.”
(from “Mary Poppins”~Walt Disney film~1964~Robert Sherman/Richard Sherman, composers)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Savory Speech

“Blaaaaaat!” The obnoxious sound of the old car horn caused me to jump as I stood and worked behind the counter at the music store. I looked out the front door to the parking lot and my heart sank. The object of my dismay wasn’t so much the battered late-sixties model Mercury that sat there with its motor still running; it was the driver of the old jalopy. Kelly was, as the Lovely Lady’s mother would have put it, “the bane of my existence”. At least, for a period of time, he was. The old fellow loved vintage cars and country music, which meant that he needed someone to keep the ancient stereos in the decrepit vehicles functioning. He had discovered that I had a knack with the tired old tape players, so life for a time was a constant parade of the rusty flivvers and their eight-track players needing attention.
The players weren’t so much of a problem, although I never really enjoyed working on them. The eight-track player was probably one of the worst conceived inventions ever, but I understood the theory of their operation and could usually coax the ones Kelly presented me with back to life, at least enough to spit out a few more hours of what he called music. Whenever I worked on the players, I would always have to shove a jumbled mess of tapes aside…tapes by the likes of George Jones, Lynn Anderson, and Merle Haggard. One day, as I shoved such a pile across the seat, a loaded pistol appeared from underneath the miscellaneous hodge-podge. I jumped out of the car and shouted for Kelly, but he calmly pocketed the gun and told me not to worry about it. I did anyway. I also repaired that player in record time.
The real reason that I wasn’t happy to see Kelly on this day was that I knew he was going to tell me how he was doing. You know–you usually greet folks with a polite “How are you today?” I had long ago abandoned that phrase with Kelly, simply because he assumed that I really wanted to get the full answer–and I do mean full answer! “Well Paul, the doctor had to open up my sinuses the other day and drain them. You never saw such a mess!” He would then proceed to describe the mess, the like of which I never saw and never wanted to see, much less hear described. There was always a different story, each one more fantastic and gory than the one before. I amazed myself with my own brilliance one day and just decided to quit asking him how he was. It worked the first two times. After that, he began responding to my “Hi, Kelly!” with, “Well Paul, The doctor had to cut open my skull last week to relieve the pressure that was building up…” I really began to dread his visits.
It’s been many years since Kelly graced me with his company and I’ve had a while to think about the cause of his behavior and conversation style. It seems to me that it is possible to miss being the center of attention as we age. By all accounts, Kelly was a fireball of a man in his younger days and with his love of fast cars and guns, there was no dearth of attention paid to his exploits. In his old age, he became just another old man, driving his old cars around town and going home to his elderly wife when the day was done. No one gave him a second look anymore. In the absence of admiring compliments, or even any heed given whatsoever to his activities, it seems that he decided to grab the attention once more by shocking the few people who would acknowledge him. It had the opposite effect, instead driving people away that might have become friends, but who were repulsed by the obvious lies and exaggerations.  
It’s becoming easier for me to put myself in the old man’s place these days. When we are young, there is no end of the attention paid to our exploits and accomplishments. Just by achieving goals, we inspire comments. “Oh! He’s so talented! And, so young!” As the years pass, the excitement dies down and we get an occasional pat on the back, along with a half-hearted, “I really enjoyed that.” The same activities undertaken in the silver years don’t even seem to move their spirits at all. The attention has turned to new recipients, more energetic and more fresh. Thus, age leads to obscurity. Not all men can abide the unfamiliar lack of attention. Like awkward teenagers, anxious to acquire the regard of others, they become “class clowns”, performing their act for anyone who will acknowledge them. Some, like my friend, don’t know when to stop and so, ostracize the very audience they are attempting to impress.
Well, you’ve waded through the cautionary tale, and worked to decipher my psychobabble in this attempt to explain an old man’s foibles. Will it make any difference to you at all? Maybe not. I’m actually talking to myself mostly, I think. The realization that I could easily become Kelly drives me to consider the actions necessary to prevent this fate. I don’t have to look any further than the words I learned as a child in Sunday School. “Let your conversation be always full of grace…” Words intended to shock are not full of grace. Statements crafted to turn attention to myself are not full of grace. Comments which inflame the passion of the listeners are definitely not full of grace. I really like the phrase that follows the one I quoted above. “…seasoned as with salt…” Conversation that has a generous amount of grace sprinkled throughout will not anger and disgust, nor will it entice illicit emotions. “…so that you will know how to speak to every man.”
So, these days, I’m working on including a copious dusting of grace with the words that come from my mouth. I’m thinking it will be hard to go wrong as long as I keep that goal in sight. 
But someday, if I start to talk with you about the procedure the doctor performed on me last week, you might want to jog my memory a bit.
They do say the three primary signs of old age are forgetfulness, and…and…Oh, never mind. Just stop me before I tell the story.
“Speech is oft repented, silence never.”
(Old Danish proverb)
“Let no corrupting (decaying, rotten) talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up…”
(Ephesians 4:29a~ESV)

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

Bear Down

The red-headed lady of the house wasn’t in any mood to be sassed.  Today was cleaning day and already, the servants were revolting.  Especially that young loud-mouthed one.  The tow-headed boy appeared once again in her presence, this time with a complaint that he knew would do the trick.  “Every single one of us has tried to clean that spot and it just won’t come out.  Can’t we just move on to something else?”

The woman hadn’t lived to her advanced age (all of thirty-six or so) without learning a thing or two about cleaning.  She grabbed the scrub brush which the youngster was holding and marched over to the bucket, dipping it a time or two into the sudsy water.  Kneeling down and holding tightly to the handle, she plopped the brush onto the floor and, bearing down, began to scrub.  Magically, the stain, which “every single one” of the unpaid staff had attempted to remove, was gone when she again lifted the brush from the surface. 

“Wow!” The boy’s voice was a mixture of awe and disappointment.  Awe, because he really had tried to remove the stain himself before offering the complaint; disappointment, because he now realized that he would have to continue with the unhappy chore.  “How did you do that?” 

The lady’s answer was limited to just two words–two words which didn’t clarify the issue at all for him.

“Elbow grease.”  She dropped the brush into the water again, stood up and demanded, as she headed back to her command station in the living room, “Now, use some yourself and get back to work!” 

It took another hour or two, but the floor was spot free and ready for the wax, which the next crew was to apply.  The fun part of the job, polishing the floor by sliding on it in stocking feet, would come hours later. 

The boy was still curious, so he headed for her location.  Approaching the recliner in the living room, the question on the tip of his tongue was blurted out.  “Mom, what is elbow grease?” 

She muttered something about it just being hard work and using the muscles that God had given to you.  It wasn’t a satisfactory answer, but it was all he was likely to get.  He headed out for the orange trees to snag one or two of the brilliantly colored and sugar-sweet spheres off the low-hanging branches and promptly forgot about the subject.

But, I still want to know.  What is elbow grease? 

Oh, I’ve heard about the jokes played on young apprentices; the journeymen telling them to get a container of the stuff for them, only to laugh at their naivety as they seek for it earnestly, like someone searching for the non-existent snipe in the forest.  I’ve used the term myself for years, to mean just what my mother indicated…hard work.  But the word-nerd in me wants to have a definitive answer.  Where did this obscure phrase come from?  What strange brain concocted such a term? 

As it happens, the answer is so simple, I should have thought of it myself.  One has only to go to the “New Dictionary of the Canting Crew”, published in 1699, to find the meaning.  The Canting Crew refers to ruffians and thieves, the real source of slang and street language in those ancient days. The entry therein for elbow grease reads thus: “Elbow grease, a derisory term for sweat.”  There is nothing further.

Sweat.  Of course! 

When you do physical work in your shirt sleeves, you perspire and the sweat runs down the smooth surface of your upper arms to your elbows, lubricating them, almost annoyingly so.  Elbow grease. As happy as I am to finally have the answer, I am embarrassed that I couldn’t work it out for myself long ago.  Ah, well.  Ofttimes the answer stares us in the face for a lifetime and we still don’t discern it.  I now know it, anyway.  I am content. 

As my father-in-law used to say, in his quirky manner, “Well, I learned something new today.  Now, I can go back to bed.”

I’m thinking tonight about how important elbow grease is to our lives.  Oh, we have labor saving devices, better lubricants, and stronger cleaning agents, but we still have to, every once in awhile, find the elbow grease and just power through the task in front of us.  Life wasn’t intended to be easy, we weren’t meant to achieve easy victories.  Sometimes, we have to scrape the paint or scrub the sidewalk, with nothing but a basic tool and our muscle. 

We work up a sweat and get the job done.  Two things happen when we do that. 

First, we learn that hard work gets the job done. It’s not about talent, or good looks, or our social station.  Hard work pays off.

Second, we have that feeling that nothing else can inspire in us; the feeling of achieving our goals for ourselves.  I would call it pride, only some wit will retort that “pride goes before a fall” and try to take away the God-given sense of accomplishment.  This is a different sort of pride, the sort that leads to more hard work, and more achievement.  I’m thinking that it is indeed, a good thing.

The young man stood in front of me at the music store the other day, showing me his sore fingers.  He had his guitar with him and wanted me to repair it.  “It hurts my fingers when I play,” was the complaint. 

I examined the guitar, finding it to be properly adjusted, with a set of strings which were well suited to the beginning student.  I handed it back to the boy and said, almost hardheartedly, “It’s supposed to hurt your fingers when you play.  Keep working at it.” 

You see, the only way to become a guitar player is to work through the discomfort and the softness of disuse, developing calluses on the tips of the fingers.  Practice, practice, practice isn’t only a phrase in a joke, it’s the way of life for any aspiring musician.  Hard work…elbow grease, is required for any achievement worth talking about.

I’m not sure, but it is possible that the words the Creator spoke to Adam, as his punishment was meted out for disobedience in the Garden of Eden, could be paraphrased from “By the sweat of your brow…” to “Everything you need to accomplish to live on this earth will be done with elbow grease.”  I finally comprehend the red-head’s words, nearly fifty years later.

Couldn’t quite conquer that problem that faced you yesterday?  Try it again today, only this time, use a little more elbow grease.  You’ll get it done.  I’ll keep working, too. 

Let’s bear down!  There is still a lot to accomplish.

“By the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat until you return to the ground from which you were made. For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return.”
(Genesis 3:19~NLT)

“Both tears and sweat are salty, but they render a different result.  Tears will get you sympathy; Sweat will get you change.”
(Jesse Jackson~American civil rights leader)

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