Not POP Yet…

“I’m too tired.  I won’t be writing tonight.”  I have just left the Lovely Lady where she sits and works her magic with needles and thread.  The evening was taken up with the challenge of assembling a basketball goal for the grandsons (and their dad, truth be told), a Christmas gift from the Lovely Lady and me.  I shall pay the price tomorrow, as the old joints promise to mount their protest in their own good time.  I think the prize will be worth the suffering, both mental and physical.

“No blog?  That’s a disappointment.”  The Lovely Lady was being kind, but she hit a nerve with her words.  Like many creative minds, mine is partially driven by the response of my audience (or sometimes, the lack thereof).  I have thought, more than once recently, that I might cease in my nightly ramblings until there was a clamor of voices demanding that I begin anew (and surely, that would be the case!) and it seemed that this might be the week for that to happen.  No announcement, no mention of my intentions, just a sudden cessation of writing.   

I sat before the computer screen, dark clouds firmly fixed over my head, and thought about how you’d miss me when I was gone.  It was not long, however, before I was laughing at myself, as I recalled a paragraph from Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer”, in which the young hero plays out the same scenario.  He had been punished by his Aunt Polly for something he didn’t do (for once) and determined that he would make her sorry that she had mistreated him so.  Wandering across town to the beautiful Becky Thatcher’s home, he determined to die beneath her window, so that her eyes might be the first to alight sympathetically on his lifeless body in the light of day.  Here is the scene, in the author’s own words:

“And thus he would die–out in the cold world, with no
shelter over his homeless head, no friendly hand to wipe the
death-damps from his brow, no loving face to bend pityingly over him
when the great agony came. And thus SHE would see him when she looked
out upon the glad morning, and oh! would she drop one little tear upon
his poor, lifeless form, would she heave one little sigh to see a bright
young life so rudely blighted, so untimely cut down?

The window went up, a maid-servant’s discordant voice profaned the
holy calm, and a deluge of water drenched the prone martyr’s remains!”

I’m reconsidering my moping resolution to lie here holding my flower to my chest until someone takes notice of it.  I think that I shall continue to share my thoughts, even should there be complete silence from the other side of this large room we all live in.  If you’d like to cry a single tear, that will be acceptable, but I don’t think that I need the entire pitcher-full dumped over my head to bring me to my senses.  Time will tell.

Speaking of which, a thought hit me the other day (Hey! It does happen!)  I’ve noticed that sometimes the vendors with whom I do business have some quaint ways of expressing things.  One, which I noticed recently, seems to have some bearing on my thoughts tonight.  I realized that a few items I had ordered were not included in the package which had been delivered, so I quickly checked the packing list.  In the column beside those items, there were three letters printed.  “WIP” was all it said.  I cast about to think of any applicable acronyms, but couldn’t come up with any which made sense.  “Wasn’t in package” seemed inappropriate and “waltz in place” simply wouldn’t do at all.  Finally, I looked down near the bottom of the page and saw a glossary of the acronyms used in the document.  Running my finger along the list of possibilities, I had it!  WIP simply stands for “work in progress”.

What a great idea!  It’s not back-ordered, not out-of-stock, not temporarily unavailable.  It’s simply a work in progress!  When we’re finished with the process, you’ll have the item.  Don’t worry.  Don’t fret.  We’re busy making it happen for you.  WIP!

I’d like to believe that those letters describe us–you and me.  We are, individually and collectively, works in progress.  The finished product will stand before you someday, but until then, enjoy the WIP.  The tweaking, the molding, the shoving back into place…all of these are still happening and will eventually yield the desired result.  Wait a little while.  You’ll see.

But, unhappily, that does bring me to another acronym which I find frequently listed on our packing lists at the music store.  It seems that this one should be a happy phrase, seeing the letters which are printed there.  “POP”  It sounds kind of exciting, doesn’t it?  Reminds you of firecrackers in July or of bubbles being blown with gum.  It might even be a little fizzy, like our soft drinks.  But you would be wrong.  POP is the acronym for “permanently out of print”.  I guess you could say that it’s more like the sound of party balloons being instantly deflated after the gaiety and camaraderie is over and done.  (“Turn out the lights…the party’s over…”)  The company is saying, in effect, “This WIP never delivered on its promise and now it is POP.  We’re tired of waiting for results, so have determined that we won’t ask you to have patience anymore.  You may give up now.”  What a sad conclusion to a hopeful and promising beginning.

Work in Progress…Permanently Out of Print.  Both indicated by just three letters.  Three letters which mean either hope and promise or disappointment and failure.  Which is it going to be?

In large part, we determine the outcomes in this life.  I will be quick to acknowledge that our faith plays a key role, as does our environment and our support system.  But, in spite of the indisputable truth that our Creator has placed in each of us who are His children the ability to achieve and excel in the areas of our gifting and even gives His strength to enable us, He has also given us the choice.  We decide whether to keep moving forward and remain a WIP, or to give up on our dreams and hopes, simply becoming another POP, never to reach our goals in this life.

I’m a work in progress!  Sometimes, the progress is painfully slow; at other times, dizzyingly fast.  Mostly, I remain a slow learner, as I’ve mentioned repeatedly.  That said, progress is occurring.  Even the snail gets where he’s going eventually.  I trust that you’re going in the same direction, too…

Oh!  Just a warning…I’m thinking that even my practice of writing won’t be POP anytime soon.  Brace yourselves!

“The wisdom of the prudent is to think about his way, but the folly of fools is deceit.”
(Proverbs 14:8~WEB)

“The great thing in the world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving.”
(Oliver Wendall Holmes~American writer/educator~1809-1894)

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

A Little Lip Gloss For The Pig

“It doesn’t have to play; it just has to look good.”  The man was completely serious as he handed me the guitar which had been his son’s first instrument.  I chuckled, but agreed to glue the bridge back on the little half-size instrument.  Not that it was ever a great example of the luthier’s craft, but, without question, it will never play a note of music again.  He doesn’t care; it’s going up on the wall as a decoration.  It wasn’t the only such instrument I have worked on this season.

The lady brought in the filthy old arch-top guitar about a week ago. She needed some work done before Christmas, since she wants to present the instrument to her husband as a “gift” (it’s actually already his).  She had a similar request to the man mentioned above.  “Go ahead and clean it up and put some new strings on it.”  I glanced at the collapsing top of the guitar, turning it around to look as the back as well.  Something clattered inside as I spun it around.  Peering into the F-holes on the top, I noticed long pieces of wood loose inside the body.  These were top braces which are normally glued securely onto the underside of the top, providing structure and keeping the arch from collapsing. Quite obviously, they had failed to do their job.  I had already noted that the old rusted strings were about five inches away from the top, but quickly saw the reason for this too, as I looked at the back of the guitar.  The back itself had come unglued from the neck block, causing the entire affair to lose its structural integrity.  This was a disaster!

I told the lady that her guitar couldn’t be repaired without extensive work, which would cost well more than the instrument was worth.  Her reply?  “It doesn’t have to play; it just has to look good.”  The old piece of junk was a family heirloom (of sorts) and she hoped that it would be put on a stand, so people could look at, and admire, it.  All she wanted was for me to clean it and replace the strings!  As if that would achieve the purpose.  Today, we put a little glue on the peripheral joints and clamped the whole affair together.  It will never hold the tension of a set of guitar strings again.  As long as no one runs their fingers across the strings, it may, perhaps, fool most people with its appearance.  It will, without a doubt, fool not a single real guitarist for more than a moment.

I remembered a young father (now an old man) telling me once about how he had received his discharge from the Navy, years before.  As a Petty Officer on a ship, he had a number of men under his authority.  One day, at sea, his Captain ordered him to have his men paint the ship’s hull before they got into harbor a few days later.  Doing a bit of quick math in his head, he suggested that it wouldn’t be possible to finish the job.  The Captain questioned his mathematical skills, declaring that there was no reason the men couldn’t slap on a coat of grey paint in a couple of days, to which the conscientious young noncom answered, “That’s true, sir.  But to do the job right, we need to scrape the rust off first and prime it, then paint it.”  The Captain insisted that he wanted his ship to look good when it came into harbor.  Again, the young Petty Officer demurred, saying, “This ship belongs to the American taxpayers, sir.  We need to do the job right.”  The ship didn’t get painted before it sailed into harbor.  The young Petty Officer, who had plans to be a career Navy man was handed an honorable discharge for medical reasons a few days later. “Chronic seasickness.”  So said the discharge papers, although the young man maintained that he was never sick a day while on board.  He left the Navy disillusioned, but with his integrity still intact.

It is a common practice, one in which we all participate at some point.  The practice I speak of is the intent to deceive, to cover up.  We know that the facade, the face, we are presenting to the people in our life is false and no more than skin deep, but we are more interested in keeping up appearances than in dealing with reality.  It has ever been so with humans.  We want to appear complete and perfect, much more than we actually want to be complete and perfect.  That is the entire story of mankind.

As we stand on the Eve of another Christmas Day, I can’t help but think that this is what Christmas is all about.  For all of history, man’s practice has been to cover up his folly.  Even the religious practices did only that…cover up, nothing more.  The Savior came for one purpose: to make us new and, thus, render the cover-up unnecessary.  The True Word became flesh and blood and lived with us, showing us the stark contrast between the genuine and the facade, the original and the pretender.  He lived among us and then He died for us.  Not so we could continue to cover up who we are, but so that we could be made new; made as we were designed in the first place.

The ways in which we choose to celebrate this holy day seem to me to be a continuation of our practice of dressing up broken things.  We decorate our homes and we cook and we entertain.  We sing and we watch movies about Santa and about BB guns that will “shoot your eye out” and about being left home alone.  We give extravagant gifts to our children and family members, but we don’t have more than a few moments that we can spare in contemplation of the real Gift of Christmas.  In many ways, our celebration of Christmas is just more pretty decoration to hang on the wall of our collective lives, but there is no substance to it, no reality.  The instrument on the wall won’t make music, it just looks good.

We have adopted so many traditions in the celebration of this day that we nearly miss the point entirely.  I’m suggesting that this Christmas, we might take some time to be quiet in the midst of the bedlam that has come to define the holiday, and consider the real reason that the King of all the universe lay helpless in that cow stall.  He came to offer hope and grace to all people.  His offer wasn’t just to make us look good, but actually to make us good.

The lady will pick up her guitar from my store today and will present the useless thing to her husband as a gift tomorrow.  They’ll look at the old instrument on display and think fondly about when it made music.  They’ll probably even tell a story or two about when Grandpa used to play it.  But, it won’t make music again.

I’m thinking that we don’t need to accept a pretty, empty shell when we can actually hear the beautiful music from the real thing.  Christmas is about things that are made new!

“Chords that were broken will vibrate once more!”

“And the one sitting on the the throne said, “See!  I am making all things new.”
(Revelation 21:5~ISV)

“Christmas began in the heart of God.  It is complete only when it reaches the heart of man.”

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

Giving Good Gifts

Tonight, I read once again that classic old Christmas short story, “The Gift of the Magi”.  Written by O. Henry, who was, ironically, a convicted embezzler and an alcoholic, it remains, in my mind at least, one of the best stories of true love that I have read.  Every year around this time, the cynics come out, clamoring of the foolishness rather than the wisdom of the two protagonists.  In spite of the misanthropy of these detractors, I find amazing hope in the story, choosing to believe that it is a better thing to give up something we prize for someone we love, undeterred by the possibility that the result may be other than we would wish.

 I grew up receiving an annual gift from my father, one which I was never happy to receive.  You see, we didn’t celebrate Christmas at our house.  Oh, my parents were Christians, but my dad had spent hours of research and had determined that because of the pagan roots of the original holiday celebrated at this time of year, and the fact that a number of the practices had been “borrowed” by the church as it replaced the pagan celebrations, he and his family would not be celebrating Christmas.  To a young child growing up, it was not a happy situation.  Since we attended a church which celebrated the day, we were surrounded by friends who expected us to enjoy the season.  I guarantee you, we did not!  Other children received presents galore.  We didn’t.  Other families spent the holiday with their extended family.  We didn’t.  Other people enjoyed Christmas caroling and times of fellowship afterward.  We didn’t.

I’m not seeking sympathy, because the gift from my father was irreplaceable and given in love.  To this day, I treasure and value it.  His gift to his family was the courage to stand for his convictions.  No matter how unpopular they were, he stood on those principles in which he had confidence.  And they were unpopular.  He was accused of not being a Christian by some, and outcast (at least for the month of December) by others.  It was pretty unpopular from our point of view also, since we had to face the kids at school, either with explanations or lies.  I’m ashamed to say that many times, my choice was the latter.  It was easier for me to reply, “Oh, I just got clothes,” to the inevitable question of what I received for Christmas, than it was to explain why I didn’t get any presents from my family.  But as I have matured, my admiration for the stance my father took, regardless of whether you view it as wrong or right, has grown immensely.  He believed what he said and was willing to pay the price for it.

As an adult, I have not retained the viewpoint my father had regarding Christmas.  While it’s a much larger conversation than I want to have here, let’s just say that I see many areas in life wherein we have utilized the tools available to us to do God’s work, in this case, a time of celebration in which we have the opportunity to spread the good news of God’s love.  But the lesson of standing firm for what you believe is not lost on me, and my stubbornness nearly matches my father’s in a number of areas.  If you don’t believe me, ask my children, or the Lovely Lady, or even the men with whom I’ve served in the leadership of my church.

What sort of gifts are you giving your children?  It’s a sure bet that the lion’s share of the toys you buy will be forgotten long before your offspring reach majority.  They’ll have dim memories of the expensive decorations and elaborate feasts.  But, they will always remember the things that matter to you, the principles for which you are willing to stand firmly in your life.  As you wrap all those other presents this week, take some time to think of the gifts you are giving which will last for a lifetime.  Make sure they’re the things you want to be remembered for.

The O.Henry story is a great romantic tale which brings tears to the eyes and a short-term rush of sentimentalism, leading unfortunately to no real, or lasting, transformation.  The stories of who we really are and what we really believe in, on the other hand–those are the stories that will shape lives for eternity.

Make sure your gift is a wise one…the true gift of the magi.

“The greatest gift is a portion of thyself.”
(Ralph Waldo Emerson)

“As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
(Joshua 24:15)

Reprinted (with editing) from a post entitled “Not Just Another Wise Guy”, first published 12/21/10.

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

Paste It, Daddy!

Photo-montage created by Uwe Kils

The Grinch poked his head in today.  This has already been a Christmas season with a good number of ups and downs, but things seemed to be settling down.  I was starting to sense that contented feeling which has made an appearance in many of the previous years as items have been marked off of the “still ahead list”.  Christmas programs are mostly done and performances completed with tolerable competence.  The annual party with friends was a success.  Most of my tasks at the music store are shaping up and quite a few customers have been served successfully.  The goal is in sight and we’re just coasting down to the final, lovely gatherings in celebration of our Savior’s birth.

But, as I said, the Grinch poked his head in today.  I was sitting at my desk yesterday when it happened.  The thought came to me, as I drew in a breath of air. (I like to do that periodically, you know–breathe. I’m told that it’s good for my health.)  The uneasy question formed itself, as a little whistling sound intruded on the sultry tones of Karen Carpenter’s vocals coming from the speakers on my desk.  “What was that?”  I asked, of no one in particular.  And, wouldn’t you know it?  No one particular answered.  My brain did, though.  “It was you, knucklehead.  It happened when you just took that breath.”  The realization grew, as my spirits fell a bit.  Asthma.  My new, old friend.  I wished then that the visit would, hopefully, be short lived.  Time will tell, but more symptoms arrived today and I’m not feeling so hopeful about it.

You know, Dr. Seuss introduced his grumpy little green friend in the same year that I was born.  I will admit that I’m not a huge fan of the author, since I have an aversion to being manipulated to latent conclusions and the Dr. was definitely a master at that.  Nonetheless, the Grinch, I understand.  This unhappy creature wanted to share his unhappiness with everyone, so he tried to “steal Christmas”.  Today, my Grinch is the illness which my body is fighting off, not quite successfully, at this moment.

Funny how illness seems to play a part in so much unhappiness.  Many memories I have of unhappy times are also memories of illness.  There are a number of occasions which are brought to mind, as I contemplate this subject tonight, especially within my own family.  For some reason, my mind also intermingles parts of that classic Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  I think that the “drafty old house” which the protagonist, George Bailey and his pretty wife, Mary live in helps to draw a parallel.  George blames the house (among other things) for his daughter’s illness, but he puts her peace of mind above his own. He sits by her bedside, greatly disturbed by his problems, but carefully shields her from any unhappy thoughts. He even tries to follow her instructions to “Paste it, Daddy” for her when a couple of petals fall off of the rose on her bedside table. Every time I watch, I feel a kinship with the character.

I’m actually thinking about a little boy in my own drafty old house who suffered frequently during his early years from the same ailment I’ve developed as a mature adult.  As the little guy gasped for breath upstairs and coughed so hard that it seemed he would injure himself, this real-life dad responded much as the screen father did in that movie–with desperation.  Illness is a powerful source of stress and unease, especially when someone we love is suffering.  At the same time, we want to protect and make things right for them.  I remember many nights when it seemed that my joy had been stolen away completely.

Over the years, I have begun to contemplate the reality of my faith and its effect on who I am a little more than I once did.  I understand that joy, the deep-seated sense of delight or exultation, is not dependent upon circumstances or events.  It is, in fact, closely related to grace, the two words coming from the same root in the Greek language.  If you, like I, are a follower of Jesus, you will understand when I say that we are instructed, not just to feel joy, but to exercise it.  It is used most often in the verb form in the pages of the Bible.  We choose to be joyful, even if we don’t feel it for the time being.

So, Dr. Seuss got it right for once, by some happy chance (and without ever understanding the true reason for Christmas). The presents and food mean nothing.  As hard as it is to admit, our health and our financial stability are also simply peripheral in their importance.  Losing the trappings of happiness strips us down to the bare bones of who we really are.  Joy lives deep in the heart of man, put there solely by his Creator and Savior.  It cannot be stolen away by any Grinch, be he real or imagined.

As I write, I don’t feel any better physically. But deep down, I realize that it’s immaterial.  I once heard that joy is similar to an iceberg.  The part you see above water–that’s the physical blessings we enjoy.  It’s the part that’s below the surface that really matters.  What you can’t see is what is really keeping the whole affair afloat. 

I wonder what’s really there, under the surface.  When the visible, the palpable, blessings are stripped away, what will be left for you?  For me?

So, even through my wheezing and coughing, I am working today to remember that the joy which comes from the King of Christmas is my strength.

That is something that no Grinch will ever be able to steal from me. 

“This day is holy unto the Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
(Nehemiah 8:10b~NIV)

“Joy to the world, the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her king;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heaven and nature sing.”
(Isaac Watts~English hymnwriter/theologian~1674-1748)

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


Gone!  The shop-owner frantically scanned the area, lifting items on the counter to peer under them, shoving others aside feverishly.  He didn’t neglect the trash can nearby, but the lost article was nowhere to be found.  He had it in his hand just a moment ago!  It couldn’t have disappeared!  Desperate, he called out to his wife in the office.  “Have you seen that piece of paper I had up here?  It had all Dee’s credit card and address information.  I can’t ship her order without it!”  The pretty red-head left her stack of work and came to his side, making suggestions and lifting articles on the counter, taking a second to dig through the trash.  He snapped at her, “I already looked there!”  They continued to look, but with or without his ire, it was not to be found anywhere.

The shopkeeper admits that he doesn’t deal with stress well.  In these moments of emotional upset, he loses touch with reality and grasps at straws.  This event was no exception.

But wait for just a moment, will you?  We can’t go past that phrase “grasp at straws” without taking a short trip down a rabbit trail.  The word-nerd in me must lend some clarity to the old saw.  Why would one grasp at straws?  The image in my head is that of my grandson, coming around the corner with his little hand grasping a quantity of soda straws.  Of course, an argument is about to break out, since each one wants the blue one and there is only one of those.  There are plenty of yellow ones, but there is no demand for that out-of-vogue color. To settle the argument, we’ll…What’s that?  Oh, my apologies…I find myself following a completely different rabbit trail than the one we started down initially.  Where was I headed?  Oh, yes.  The young lad’s hand grasping the straws.  No, it just doesn’t fit.  There must be another explanation.

I search for the etymology of the phrase and learn that there is an old proverb, traceable all the way back to the fifteenth century author/monk/politician, Sir Thomas More, who wrote that “a man in peril of drowning catchest whatsoever comest next to hand, be it never so simple a stick.”  The phrase evidently became a well-used proverb, but was next quoted (that we know of) in the eighteenth century as “a drowning man will catch at a straw”.  The picture of this drowning man being swept down the roaring current of a swift river is a vivid one, as he desperately grabs at the reeds or grasses along the edge, knowing that none could possibly stop his passage.

And, now, rabbit trail followed, we find ourselves back at the shop-keeper’s dilemma.  To put it plainly, he panicked.  Probably a customer had picked it up from the counter top along with his or her purchase.  He racked his brain, but came up with only one whose name he could remember.  He made a desperate call to her brother, leaving a message on his voice mail to have her call the store.  Then he let his mind run rampant, unbridled and uncontrolled.  What was he to do?  He had lost important information.  That credit card number, coupled with the billing address on the same paper, would give anyone access to make charges with the card.  What a disaster!  He would have to call Dee and tell her to cancel her credit card.  Her son wouldn’t receive his Christmas presents.  She would never do business with him again.  His reputation would be ruined.  His mind spun the wild imaginations out dizzily.

After some time, cogent thoughts began to return.  Yes, he would call Dee if the paper couldn’t be located.  Yes, damage would be done.  They would face the consequences.  But first, they needed to go through the events of the last half hour to see if anything had been missed.  Amazingly, in his mind’s eye, he saw a notebook which had been on the counter before the last customer came in.  He immediately did the logical thing and found the notebook.  Opening it up, his eye fell instantly on the paper he was so desperately seeking!  He had closed it up when he moved the notebook aside.  It never really had been lost; there never was a genuine disaster.  The reprieve was almost too much for the man.  He simply sat down at his cluttered desk, running his hands through his hair and muttering to himself, and took a breather.  What a relief!

And we leave our pathetic shop keeper for a moment, as we attempt to make another point to this rambling tale.  Recently, the senseless death of children in Connecticut has grabbed the attention of our country.  Our reaction has gone beyond shock and sadness.  Many are desperate for answers, even questioning God.  But more than that, I see, all around me, people who have other problems too…big problems.  Jobs have been lost, serious illness has struck, relatives have passed away.  Many believe they are drowning.  Panic abounds.  Straws are grabbed at as unworkable solutions are suggested and argued.  As we rant and lament our fate, we just know that the current is carrying us to certain destruction.  What to do?  What to do?

I wonder if we stop to think that the foundation under our feet hasn’t left us at all.  I wonder if we actually believe that our Creator has no immediate interest in our circumstances.  Yes, the current of life is pushing us downstream, but there is still a river bed beneath us.  Curiously, when water runs fastest, it is usually the shallowest.  Experts recommend putting your feet down and finding the bottom when you are caught in a fast-moving current.  You may not be able to stand against the relentless torrent, but your feet dragging on the floor of the waterway can act as an anchor, slowing your progress (a lot more than those reeds at the edge will), and giving a chance to get your wits about you, possibly making your way out of the current to a more stable place.

 The silly shop keeper understands that it is foolish to give up hope before the disaster actually happens.  Many find, as they renew their trust in a God who cares more than they can know, that the overpowering current is just moving them to a better place.  Am I foolish enough to forget that some people actually do drown?  No, I’m not.  Loss is a part of our existence on this earth.  But after loss, we who are left go on.  We can allow ourselves to be paralyzed by past circumstances, or we can learn from them and turn to face what comes next.  It does not mean that we are not sad for our losses, that we do not mourn, but we remain resolute nonetheless, as we press on to the goal.

How about it?  Are you ready to quit grasping at straws like a drowning man?  I think it’s time we work together at keeping our footing in the swiftly moving current of life.  It’s bound to be a little tricky, but I’m confident that we’ll make it just fine. 

I’ll take the anchor over the straws any day… 

“If you fell down yesterday, stand up today.”
(H.G.Wells~English novelist~1866-1946)

“We have an anchor that keeps the soul
Steadfast and sure while the billows roll,
Fastened to the Rock which cannot move,
Grounded firm and deep in the Savior’s love.”
(Priscilla J Owens~American school-teach/hymn writer~1829-1907)

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

The Odor of Love

He asked me to give him a hug.  Me.  A non-hugger if ever there was one.  Hadn’t I already given him enough?  Could I not even be spared this last and greatest indignity?  A hug.  Well, if it was going to happen, I wasn’t going to be halfhearted about it.  I reached out and pulled him to me, sweat, stale cigarettes, and all, in a huge bear-hug.  I’m not sure, but I think he may have had tears in his eyes as he headed out the door and up the street to get his supper.  I was left standing there, still wondering what had just happened.

What had just happened?  Well, for starters, I think that part of it was just God, letting me know that He too has a sense of humor.  Back a month or two (September 14th, “Another Chance To Shine”), I told you of missing a chance to help a man and then later, another fellow coming in who was hungry and in need of food.  I said then that in my relief to be able to redeem myself, I “could have hugged him”.  Perhaps, the Lord thought that there was still unfinished business, because the man who insisted on a hug today was that same fellow who provided my second chance back then.  I guess I should learn not to use idle words when I describe events, shouldn’t I? 

Actually, though, my encounter with the young man didn’t go all that smoothly today.  Mark came in asking for help once more and I almost sent him away without doing anything for him.  It’s easy to become jaded by all the contrived stories and the contortions being performed by people who are developing their skills in a marketplace which is rapidly becoming saturated by men and women, all doing the same thing.  His story needed work, but it was plain that Mark was hungry and had no way to get food until the local food bank reopened tomorrow.  He wouldn’t starve.  Perhaps, I could get away with refusing to help him this time.  Others already had today.  He was prepared to hear another rejection and would try at the next place down the road.

I’m glad that I didn’t refuse him.  I would have missed out on the hug.  And in missing out on that, I would have missed out on the bigger lesson, a lesson I desperately needed.

It is Christmas time…the time when we celebrate the coming of a Savior…the time when we reflect on a God who would leave His glory to live as a servant to men, knowing that He would die at the hands of the very people to whom He came to show love.  I read the words again last week, written by the Apostle to his friends at Philippi. “You should have this kind of heart, the kind that leaves behind its riches, its authority, and its glory, and reaches down to become just like the dirty, smelly slaves that populate the world He created.  That’s exactly how you should think, and live, and be….”

The paraphrase is my own, but it seems to sum up what is written there.  It certainly describes what happened on that first Christmas, so many years ago.  This was no romantic tale, no beautiful scene; there was no pomp, and certainly no regal birth.  He was born to be a servant, and by His example and His words–and His death, He showed us the way to live and serve, and to believe in Him.

Preti: Adoration of the Shepherds

Imagine, if you will, the Royalty of Heaven…touching and smelling and embracing, the dirty and the sick and the dying.  As I consider it, the stale smoke and the sweat on my young friend today would hardly be noticed in the world which the Baby King stepped into, would it?  Why, even the stench of the “filthy rags” the religious people of this world are dressed in would make my friend’s condition feel like the freshness of a spring day in comparison.  And yet, we think nothing of demanding His touch, His caress, His embrace, as our right.  I have to wonder: how do we smell to Him?

I hugged that man today and I am serious when I tell you that as I walked back to my desk, I imagined that the odor emanating from my clothes was like a bouquet of flowers.  To the King of Christmas, I think it might have been so.  Obedience is surely a sweet aroma rising up to heaven.  And, for a moment today, I think I understood just the tiniest bit of what He did for me. 

That understanding may be gone tomorrow, but I’ll keep plugging away at this obedience thing.  There will be more chances in the days to come.  Of that, I’m sure.

I’m also going to need more practice before I’ve got the hugging part down though.  Perhaps, if you come to visit, a firm handshake will suffice.

“Men greet each other with a sock on the arm; women, with a hug.  The hug wears better in the long run.”
(Edward Hoaglund~American nature writer~born 1932)

“They (your gifts) are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God”
(Philippians 4:18b~NIV)

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

Worth Suffering For

I lost a little blood again tonight.  Oh, it wasn’t a flood, but I did say “ouch!” when it occurred.  And, I learned a lesson as I stood and sucked on my finger to stop the flow of the red liquid.  It has happened before and you can be sure it will happen again as I repeat the activity.  One would think that I would cease and desist, but the result is an important one (to me anyway), so I’ll take my chances.

As usual, I realize that there may be a little frustration as you try to figure out what this old mutterer is talking about, so I’ll try to clear the matter up as soon as may be.  You see, after a long and enjoyable evening at home, I needed to come back to the music store and do a little task I had promised to perform for someone before morning.  The lady requested that I put strings on two guitars for her children.  Foolishly, I promised that they would be done today, not thinking about the possibility that my afternoon would blow up in my face.  It did.  The explosion doesn’t bear dwelling on, but at any rate, restringing guitars was the furthest thing from my mind as I finished out the eventful day.  Now, after midnight, the thought intruded once again on my mind, which explains why I was standing at my workbench, sucking on my finger.

Oh, it doesn’t explain it at all?  Okay…here’s the thing.  When I put strings on a guitar, they must be cut short to keep them from vibrating annoyingly while the instrument is being played.  The short ends of the strings, being a little stiff, tend to catch things which pass nearby and aerate them, so to speak.  My fingers, of necessity, pass near the string ends, thus they are frequently punctured.  It is not a necessity, but merely a probability.  I install strings, I poke my fingers.  I’m not saying that every guitar tech has the problem.  It is simply a reality for me.

“Why do you continue to install strings, if it always hurts?”  I can hear the question being asked by some curious reader already.  The main thing you need to understand about the job is that the end result of most repairs is the amazing experience of tuning up an instrument and running my fingers across the newly installed strings, and hearing the brilliant and harmonious sounds which are emitted.  Most of the time, these musical instruments are in disrepair when they arrive, or at the least, in horrible voice.  My ministrations, complete with blood-letting, result in beauty from ruin; glorious music from abject silence.  The annoying sting of the errant string-end is quickly forgotten as the echoing sound of the newly tuned instrument falls on my satisfied ears.  I am content.

Once again, the long and enjoyable evening comes back to mind.  Annually, the Lovely Lady and I spend an evening near Christmas with good friends, some of whom we have known and loved for over thirty years.  Over the years, we have shared in the lives of these friends and they in ours.  Our children grew up together.  Now our grandchildren are growing up together.  The gathering also includes these children and grandchildren.  It is a glorious, noisy, delicious mess. It is also one of my favorite nights of the year and has been for quite a number of years.

How does the bloody finger remind me of this occasion?  These friendships haven’t lasted for all these years without their share of pricked fingers and painful events.  True friendship lives on through the pain and the sorrow that the years bring.  The result is the glorious music which was made tonight, not just as we raised our voices, both young and old, in praise to the new-born King, but the harmony of friends simply enjoying the fruits of many years of hard work.  To my mind, this is the kind of music which comes from heaven above.

Am I being too sentimental?  Possibly.  But, I maintain that when the Creator said of his creature, “It is not good for him to be alone,” he was not merely speaking of the need for a marriage companion, but of the companionship which would result from the populating of the earth.  We need people…every single one of us.  After our relationship with our God, our bond with people comes next in importance.  The Teacher said it, when He reiterated the old Law…”Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”  What?  You think that happens in a vacuum?  You think we can love our fellow man from a distance?  Not possible.  We are intended, even designed, to form attachments with each other; attachments which will last a lifetime and beyond.

I have long maintained that our friendships are one of God’s greatest gifts to mankind, if not one of His oldest.  There is pain involved with nurturing these ties.  These bonds will undoubtedly lead us through times of sorrow and times of loss.  But, the path leads with unfaltering steps to joy, to companionship, to kinship which can last for generations.

So, here I sit, sucking my finger and listening to glorious music.  I’m thinking that it’s worth it after all.

I hope you do too.

 “But woe to him who is alone when he falls, and has not another to lift him up.”
(Ecclesiastes 4:10b~ESV)

“The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you.  You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.”
(Bob Marley~Jamaican singer/songwriter~1945-1981)

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

Really. It Was Nothing.

I stole something tonight.  Well, it felt like stealing.  I’m not sure if feeling like you stole is the same as actually stealing, but there’s no sense in arguing semantics.  The fact is I didn’t earn it and I took it.  That is the same as stealing, isn’t it?  Perhaps, it would help if we had an explanation about what actually happened.  How about if we go back to the actual event and start from there, okay?

To start with, I will admit that I have a love-hate relationship with the Christmas season.  There are parts of this season that I love.  I love the time I get to spend with people whose company I enjoy.  I love the fact that people seem to soften up a bit at this time of the year.  I really love the music.  I love the excitement of the children’s programs, and the beauty of voices (both children’s and adults’) raised vigorously and harmoniously in praise to the new-born King.  As much as I hate winter, I will even grant a grudging nod to the prospect of a white Christmas.  All of that said, there is a certain amount of resentment because this holiday thinks it somehow deserves to be a dressy occasion.  Oh, I’m not talking about the clothes we wear, although we often must dress up for an event or two this time of the year.  No, the rancor is due to the fact that Christmas insists upon its own costume.  Lights on the houses, trees in the living room, garland up the staircase, and on and on.  The whole world changes clothes just for this one season.  And, it wouldn’t matter that much, except I have to help with the makeover.  This year is no different than any other year.

There is to be a gathering of our closest and oldest friends this week and the house is past due for its seasonal wardrobe change in preparation for the party.  The Lovely Lady transforms the old place into a wonderland every year, but this year I threw a monkey wrench into the works.  A few months ago, I placed a rather large piece of antique furniture right where the Christmas tree normally goes.  As the decorating progressed this evening, it became clear that the old oak secretary would have to be relocated for the time being.  Up to that point, I had managed to stay out of the process, but after that major chore was accomplished, I did (reluctantly, I’ll admit) help a little more; lugging a carton here and climbing that ladder to find those wayward ornaments back there.  The Lovely Lady worked for hours at the task, decorating and arranging long past the time when I would have wilted.  When the work was finally done, she was exhausted and so, headed for bed. I was grumpy, but I made a trip upstairs to check on her before coming over to write for awhile.

As I asked if she was okay and hugged her, she made a point of thanking me for all I did for her.  Me?  All I did?  For her?  I protested quietly, but accepted her thanks and said goodnight.  I’m sitting here now feeling a little guilty for doing it. I took something I didn’t earn.  It’s a little like stealing, but not really, right?

This had happened another time just recently, albeit not with her.  Last week, I was working in the music store, when a fellow came in the front door.  It was a young man who ran another music store in town.  I knew that times were tough for him and wasn’t too surprised when he told me that he was closing his business.  But then he said, “The real reason I came by was to thank you.”  I looked at him, the question mark clear on my face, and he continued.  “I wanted to thank you for your help and support over the last year.”  I protested a bit and then, uncomfortable, moved on to a different subject.  I don’t remember doing anything for him.  I’m not sure what he thinks I did for him.  The only thing I really did for him was to make sure that people knew that I wouldn’t talk badly about him behind his back.  A time or two, customers who thought they were trying to protect me from the new guy would come in saying derogatory things about him and his business.  I always made sure that they knew I liked the guy and that I had nothing bad to say about him.  On several occasions, he and I had talked about the music business in general and I had been open in making suggestions for getting through slow times.  But, I hadn’t done anything worthy of his thanks at all.  I took them anyway.

Perhaps, I am a thief, after all. I almost wish that our English language gave us the same rule that the Spanish language does when responding to the words “Thank You”.  In that language, to the spoken “Gracias”, the proper response is always “De nada.”  The grateful “Thank you” meets, not as in our language, the proud “You’re welcome,” but only the gently demurring “It was nothing.”  If I had that option, I could still hold my head high as an honest person.  In both of the cases above, it actually was nothing that I did to earn any thanks.

Who do you suppose I could speak to in order to get our rulebook changed?  We’ve taught and been taught that we always say “You’re welcome” in reply to someone’s spoken thanks, but perhaps we would be better served by the more apropos “It was nothing”, instead.  I never have quite worked out what the word “welcome” means anyway.  Why would we use the same word to tell someone that we are glad that they are in our home (You’re welcome here), as we do to accept their thanks (You’re welcome)?  Sometimes, I despair of learning the English language at all.

While I’ve been writing though, I have come up with a solution to my dilemma.  It may be a little sappy, but I think that I’ll just consider those thanks I didn’t earn as a loan, instead of feeling guilty about taking something which was not rightfully mine.  I’ll pass them on very soon to someone else.  My life is full of people who bless me in astounding ways.  Probably, if you look around, you’ll find the same thing.  We all have people who love us when we are unlovable, people who are committed to us even when we abandon them at the slightest provocation, people whose positive input into our lives is unmistakable and indisputable.  You may have some thank you’s stored up too; thanks you did not really earn, but that you accepted.  Perhaps, it’s time to pass those on now.  I’ll be working on it right along with you.

And, if you decide to tell me thank you for any little thing which meant something to you, don’t be surprised if I answer you in a different language.  It will just be my way of keeping from taking something which is not mine.

De nada.  It was nothing at all.

“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
(G K Chesterton~English born essayist and poet~1874-1936)

“Let your speech be seasoned with grace…”
(Colossians 4:6a)

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

Springs, Strings, and a Knife Edge

“It’s really simple, you know. All you have to keep in mind is the need for balance.” For just a second, I realized that I sounded like a motivational speaker, but the moment passed and I was once more talking about the young rocker’s guitar, lying on the counter before me. The young man looked at me quizzically, not quite understanding how my words had anything to do with his request. “I just want you to change the strings,” he said again, nervously. (“Man! If this old guy is going to jabber on about the dangers of excess and overdoing things, I’m out of here! Just put the strings on already!”)
I suppressed a laugh; not wanting to make him any more uncomfortable than I already had. My explanation was quick and simple. “The strings have a certain amount of tension. The springs attached underneath have to match that tension. Otherwise, the guitar won’t hold its tune.” Oh! That, he understood. We talked awhile longer about the process we would go through to put new strings on the instrument and how long it would take to tune it, then he headed out the door, promising to return tomorrow.
Tonight, I’m once again thinking about balance. And tension.
I’m going to try to avoid too much boring technical detail, but I’d like it if you’d work your way through this with me. Hopefully, you’ll think the trip was worthwhile when we come through out on the other side. The cause of this whole discussion is that the young man has a guitar which utilizes a bridge system called a Floyd Rose. Many rock guitar players love these, but they are nightmares to guitar technicians.
I guess I should begin at the beginning to bring you non-guitarists up to speed. From the original fixed-bridge acoustic guitar, which played in tune most of the time, we moved to the electric guitar with its much lighter strings and its amplifier, which showed up every flaw in tuning and scale. To help with that, came the development of the Tune-a-matic bridge, boasting individual saddles, which allowed adjustment to each string individually. Guitarists had long before found that the lighter strings of the electric guitar were easy to bend, causing a tremolo, or whammy, effect, but that stretched the strings too much and shortened their life-span, so the tremolo tailpiece with its whammy bar was developed. Because the early versions of this bridge sat against the body of the guitar when they were at rest, the action only went one direction, loosening the strings to perform a dive-bomb effect. Enter the Floyd Rose tailpiece, which could go either down or up, depending on the player’s mood and inclination.
And, now you’re up to speed, so it would be nice if you could try to keep up from here on out, okay?
What many people aren’t aware of is the fact that there is a set of springs hidden in the back of many electric guitars. These springs work to bring the tension of the strings back to the original point after the distortion of either lowering them or raising them with the whammy bar. The tension on these springs has to be exactly the same as the tension on the strings themselves. The bridge, which is the central player in all this drama, has a knife edge which makes contact at just two points. The whole balancing act takes place in these two contact points, which are small metal posts embedded in the body of the guitar. Essentially, the strings place tension one direction, while the springs in the back of the instrument pull the other direction. Balance is achieved right at the knife edge of the bridge, which floats there–neither too far up, nor too far down.
I said that balance is achieved. What I did not say is that there is no longer any stress. There is, in fact, always stress. The tension must be maintained. Even in the primitive versions of the guitar, tension was essential to producing tones. The purest and strongest tones issue from high tension strings, stretched almost to their physical limit. But those most primitive of instruments required balance too…a careful equalization of tautness in the strings, and the strength of the resonant guitar. Too little tension and the sound is flabby and weak…too much and the brilliance of the tone is merely a temporary prelude to disaster, as the instrument submits to the physical forces which bring about its collapse. Balance is essential.
Do you get the idea that we’re not necessarily talking about guitars anymore? Hey! You are keeping up! You see, all of life is about balance, but never (much to our disappointment) about the absence of tension. Even in our training period, there is stress, discomfort, as we are being stretched and tuned for a lifetime of performances. The Technician is tightening, first the strings, then the springs, achieving the balance which is essential for the ideal tone and pitch, all the while making adjustments to the peripherals which will enhance the whole of the performance. At times, the tension seems too much to bear, but then, we realize that we are up to the task, holding our own against the forces which tug and stretch us.
Do I wish that life were not full of tension? You bet! But perhaps, it’s a good thing that we don’t always get those things for which we wish. You see, without tension, there is no balance. Without balance, there is no output. There will, indeed, be times when the tension lessens and we feel carefree and relaxed. My guess that these times of respite are actually periods when the Master Luthier is once again making adjustments, changing strings, and tightening the springs in preparation for another round of productiveness from His instrument. We were made to sing out with full voice! That won’t be achieved in the absence of opposition and stress. We perform at our utmost when we rest–hardship balanced with peace; uncertainty countered with faith–on the fulcrum of His grace.
Well, I’ve come full circle once again, causing me to remember that tomorrow will bring with it a little additional stress if I haven’t actually achieved some semblance of balance with the young man’s guitar before he arrives to pick it up. So, if you’ll pardon me for a moment or two, I’ll step down from this soapbox once again and deal with that little project.
Tension balanced with tension, resting on a knife edge! Who knew that beauty could come from such an environment?
Just make sure that knife edge is balanced on the right fulcrum…
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
(John 16:33~NIV)
“We come into this world head first and go out feet first. In between, it’s all a matter of balance.”
(Paul Boese~American businessman and writer~1923-1926)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Garbage In…

The house is taking shape again.  For awhile there, it was showing its age, but the ministrations of a few talented men have brought it back from the brink.  We actually enjoyed the rain last night, lying in bed with a certitude that the new shingles overhead would prevent a deluge into any internal part of the house–not that it had already happened–it was just the slight possibility that with an old roof, it could have occurred with the next rainfall.  I’ll be even more happy when the kitchen wing is re-sided and the new door installed, but perhaps not for the reason you might expect.

You see, my problem with the process right now is that huge pile of trash in the middle of the backyard.  Well, it used to be a huge pile.  The black monsters, believing that if it is in their yard, it is there for them to play with, have begun to spread the refuse around a bit.  Perhaps, more than a bit.  When they were smaller, all the experts told us that it was because they were puppies.  They would certainly grow out of it.  Now, they tell us that it’s because the little dears are bored.  “Get them some chew toys,” is the stock suggestion.  Somehow, for these lovable furballs, all teeth and tails, chew toys turn into lunch.  Again and again, the chew toys are torn to bits and then the bits are swallowed, one by one.  And now…the once huge pile of plywood and Masonite, along with a few bits of tar paper?  You guessed it…lunch for Tip and Tildy.

They know they’re not supposed to eat the stuff.  Every time I head outside, they jump up from their repast and head for their house, quite sure that I will be upset with them.  I gather the bits and pieces and pitch them back into the trash pile, only to find them scattered again when I check on them, sometimes just minutes after the last episode.  They know that they shouldn’t chew up the trash, but they don’t seem to be able to stop themselves.  My frustration seems endless.  That said, I love the pups and wouldn’t trade them for any well-trained lapdog in the world.

I will admit that I felt a little more kinship to the pups this morning as I sat in my doctor’s office and listened, with my head hanging just like Tip’s does, to the doctor lecturing me on the trash which I have been putting into my own mouth.  There are some serious effects which I now have to deal with, effects which could have been avoided altogether if I had complied with the instructions of many wise counselors over the years.  I listened to the list of forbidden foods, now expanded to include many items which would have been okay in moderation, before I caused such damage by my own recklessness and failure to heed the warnings.  No chocolate?  Spicy foods?  Citrus fruit and juice?  The list goes on and on, seemingly populated by all the things which I love to eat.  Even peppermint…well…that, I can actually live quite nicely without.  One could almost hope that mushy peas and creamed corn were on the list, but one would be disappointed in that hope.  No.  All the tasty things I like are on the list, but changes will have to be made.  All because I refused to heed the wisdom that suggested moderation and self-control.

How do I differ from the foolish animals in the backyard?  They don’t have any serious intellect and they depend on the training which they are given, but even so, the beasts have no obvious capability to reason out cause and effect.  I, on the other hand, pride myself in that ability.  My logical facilities seem to be reasonably well advanced at times.  It’s just the self-discipline which is lacking.

I was still chewing on that this afternoon (lacking anything else which I could chew on legally), when a customer shared with me her thoughts on television watching habits.  Did you know that the average child in the United States views over thirty-two hours of television every week?  Over one whole day!  And as adults, we aren’t much better, allowing the media, whether on television or over the Internet, to control our thoughts an average of three or four hours per day…more if you count time at work for many of us.  As we talked, my mind switched gears once again and I shuddered as I considered what we have done (and are doing) to our minds.

The inane, and outright sick, input from a world seemingly bent on self-destruction has found a conduit straight past all of our natural defenses and directly into our brains and hearts.  We spend hours accepting the opinions, the lifestyles, the very morality, of people who would never be physically welcomed into our homes.  These are the degenerates, the addicts, the amoral folks whom we need to be challenging with our faith and our standards, but instead, we allow them to influence our home life  and our relationships in ways that permanently damage the very foundation of our existence.  Like the dogs (and this glutton), we ignore what we know to be true and acceptable in favor of what we crave and secretly embrace.  And, just like the aforementioned fools, we will reap the very real consequences of our actions.

This is not a rant about television, nor even a rant about eating healthy foods.  It is simply a reminder that we have been trusted with the assignment of walking a straight path, of being examples, of taking personal responsibility.  In every part of our lives, the principle holds true:  Self-gratification and licentiousness invariably lead to decadence and disaster, while self-control and discipline consistently lead to stability and vitality.

I’m going to see if I can follow the instructions my doctor has given me for awhile.  He wants good for me, not bad.  If someone could convince the black monsters in the back yard that my intent for them is the same, I’d be eternally grateful.  For the rest, the control over what goes into our eyes, and ears, and mind…the jury is still out.  I hope you’ll at least stop to consider the content of that TV program, that movie, that book, before you agree to be influenced by it. I’ll be working on it right along with you.  You see, we also have a Master who wants good for us and not evil.  He has assured us of that in his Instruction Manual.

For now though, I’m headed home to eat a little snack before bed.  I wonder if doughnuts…?  No, probably not.

You know…Garbage in, garbage out.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”
(Jeremiah 29:11~NLT)

If I wanted garbage in my living room, I’d bring the trash cans in and empty them out on the floor myself.”
(Harry E. Phillips [my father]~explaining why there would be no television in his house)

“Self-control is just controlling myself
It’s listening to my heart
And doing what is smart
Self-control is the very best way to go
So I think that I’ll control myself.”

(“Self Control”~from “The Music Machine”~Mike Milligan~1977)

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