The Clock is Running

If the passage of time were up to the old clock, the future would look a little bleak.  Six days ago, I wound it. It ran only a few minutes and stopped.  For every one of the next five days, I worked on it, swinging the pendulum to start it again.  No luck.

Until yesterday.  With another tap on the gears and levers, I released the pendulum one more time.  I had no presumption that the old thing would run at all.  Perhaps, like the old clock in the song I quoted a few weeks ago, it had “…stopped short, never to run again.”

Nope.  Not the case.  The clock kept running–this time.

Do you know what makes a clock work?  In a nutshell, energy from the weights is released to the pendulum, which keeps the works moving at a regular speed.  Somehow, a speck of dirt must have gotten into the gears, keeping the energy from reaching the mechanism.  With only the energy of the pendulum to drive it, it soon slowed to a stop again and again.  On the last try, the dirt must have been knocked loose and the energy is now being directed to the appropriate spot.

The clock is still running.

Speaking of running, I am finding a similar thing in my own running–the kind where I move my feet and cover a few miles of pavement.  I have, in the last few weeks, begun to think more about the speed at which I am moving on my nightly jaunts.  I am setting goals, thinking that I might be able to meet some raised expectations if I reach those goals.

But, like the old clock, in order to reach those goals, the energy in my body has to be released to the mechanism, the muscles, in a timely manner to achieve the speed I think is necessary.  The energy is there.  The muscles have been developed over time.  Still, I slow down at the most inopportune moments, causing the speed to dip below my expectations.

A loss of focus short circuits my intent to keep up the speed, and my all-out run becomes a trot, or even a shuffle.  Regardless, I don’t meet my goals.

I am realizing that I have to keep my eyes (and mind) focused on the target.  When I do that, I make good time, setting new personal records on my course regularly.  Lose focus and I am disappointed, every time.

I wonder if the same principle holds true in this big race we call life.

I have a sneaking suspicion that it does.  And, I’m thinking that it would be a shame to have all the first-rate equipment–the best education, the fervent desire, and the loftiest intent–but lose the race because we can’t make the transfer of energy to the machinery at the right time.

I’m hoping to run in such a way that I can win this race.


“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand.  The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”
(Alexander Graham Bell~Scottish born American inventor~1847-1922)

“Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win!”
(I Corinthians 9:24~NLT)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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Standing in the Gap

The boy stood in the doorway, his back to me.  As I walked into the room, the six year old glanced back at me with a pleading look that said, “Help me!”  The shadow of an unknown person loomed outside the front door, held at bay by nothing more than a half-opened door and one very determined young man.

Perhaps I should explain.  It was Sunday afternoon and the dinner of the week was about to be served.  The family was gathering and the table had begun to sag under the dishes of food which were appearing upon it one by one.  With company from out of town, extra places had been set and all was very close to ready.  We were, however still missing a couple of our guests.

“Uncle Stephen’s here!”  I heard the yell from the living room and as soon as I could get my hands clean from the roast beef carving job, I headed that way.  The scene described above was what met my eye.  One of the grandchildren, thinking that a favorite member of our group was at the door, met him there only to find that it was someone he had never seen before.  The wise old man he opened the door to was one of the group who was to sit at our table that day, but the boy had no knowledge of that.

Quickly I rectified the problem, introducing our guest to the boy.  Satisfied, he flung open the door and, job completed, headed off to play with his siblings (and possibly to pilfer a bit of the roast).  The man at the door was amused.

“He opened the door and asked, ‘Who are you?’  I told him my name and asked if I could come in and he just held the door tightly and said thoughtfully, ‘I don’t know.’  I didn’t think I was ever going to get in to see what that delicious smell was.”

Our esteemed guest came into the house, followed closely by the popular Uncle Stephen, and we ate.  No.  We did more than eat.  We feasted.  It wasn’t merely food that we feasted upon, but the joy of life with people we love.

There was more noise than one could imagine–children’s voices mixed with the sudden laughter at corny jokes told, and as many as three conversations going at once.  The joyous cacophony continued as plates were filled and refilled.  Then, as the need for food passed, the crowd thinned a little and finally, there were just three of us left of the original fifteen, talking, and teaching, and learning from each other.

Around us, the swirl of activity moved, almost unnoticed, a child tearing through the dining room here, a plate removed from the table there, but still we talked.  The habit of centuries–fellowship at a meal before words of wisdom shared.  We left the table full, and not just of food.

But, there is more to be said about the boy at the door, I think.  Later, as I reflected on the day, I remembered that much of our conversation after dinner had been about our responsibility to others: to guard, as well as to guide.  All through life, we fill that place of protection for someone.

As children, it is for our younger siblings.  Then we grow and we marry, protecting each other from the darts that are slung–by stranger and by family member, by co-worker and jealous acquaintance.  The children arrive and our role is expanded exponentially as dangers abound.  Then the children grow up and we have our own parents to look out for and guide through the minefield of old age. We never stop learning, and teaching, and protecting.  At least, we never should.

What of the boy holding the door?  In my mind, I see him standing there, pitted against the unknown aggressor outside the door.  Already, he is a protector, guarding my home from danger in the only way he knows how.  Six years old, and he understands that he must do his best to stand in the path of uncertainty, blocking the way until reinforcements arrive.

It may only be a boy standing in a doorway, but I see the wizard Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings standing on the stone bridge in Moria, facing an enemy that he cannot defeat, bellowing out, “You shall not pass!”

I will admit that some of our after-dinner conversation was of defeat and loss, as we bemoaned the habit of many in the world today to abandon their responsibility to others and to God.  But, as I considered our discussion in the light of the episode at the front door, my spirits began to lift and I realized once again that there is hope yet.

A boy who knows his place at age six gives promise that better is coming.

Lessons learned from wise old men and brave young boys are not soon forgotten.

Hmmm–Is that the doorbell I hear?  Can someone get that?

“I searched for someone to stand in the gap in the wall…, but I found no one.”
(Ezekiel 22:30b~NLT)

Happy are those who dare courageously to defend what they love.”
(Ovid~Roman poet~43 BC-17 AD)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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He really didn’t look like an angel.

No, seriously.  Not like an angel at all.  Not that I was looking for one.

It was Monday morning, after all.  There isn’t time to drink more than a few sips of my coffee at a time, much less be on watch for the stray angel.

Anyway, the first thing I noticed was his haircut.  Initially, I thought that I just wasn’t seeing it quite accurately, but the hair cut made me think about a television commercial in the series that one of the major communications companies is running now.  A bunch of random events occur, each linked to the one before.  The outcome must be tied to the reason the events began in the first place, therefore if you end up selling your hair, you chose the wrong communications company.

Using their logic, this fellow had chosen the wrong communications company.  In some places, the hair on his head was sticking out in tufts, but it was shaved to the scalp in others.  The only almost-normal thing about the haircut was the bushy pair of Elvis-style sideburns.  No, he didn’t look at all like my idea of an angel.

He didn’t smell like an angel, either.

At nine-thirty on Monday morning, one doesn’t expect to smell that much alcohol on a person’s breath, but there it was, almost making the air stiff as he talked.  I wondered about that.  What would make a man drink on Monday morning?  I still don’t know the precise answer, but I do know he was unhappy.

I helped him find the items he needed.  As I gave him choices, he didn’t want to make them.

“I trust you completely, Paul.”  He said the words twice.

I know he meant it, but I’m always uncomfortable with being trusted completely.  I have been known to misunderstand what customers need.  The result isn’t always pretty.  But, that sentiment was about to be driven out of my thoughts.  You see, just as I was ringing up the sale and he was digging under his tee shirt for his debit card (I still don’t know exactly where it had been stashed), I noticed his arms.

Angels don’t cut themselves, do they?

The deep cuts in his skin nearly took my breath away.  It took me a second of two, but the proximity of each cut and the regular pattern of the gashes on his forearms left no question as to how they had gotten there.  He was definitely a cutter, a self-mutilator.  I’ve never known anyone with this problem–not that I was aware of anyhow.  That said, I do know that this behavior comes from a low self image, and the depression that accompanies thoughts of incompetence.  It was already evident that he had just such problems.

He had forgotten an item, so we found it and I helped him make another choice.  A third time, the words were spoken, “I trust you completely, you know.”

This time I had an answer–sort of.  I reminded him that I didn’t always make good choices for myself, let alone for other people.  He admitted that he knew I was human too (I really am, you know).

My next words were unplanned.  “You know, when I fall down, I just get up.  Everybody falls sometimes.”

He struggled with that a moment.  “I’m trying to get up, I guess.”  Moments later he headed for the door.

“Come back anytime you want.”  I said.  “I’m here ‘most every day.”

He looked back at me through bleary eyes.  “If I’m still around, I’ll come back.”

I wasn’t sure if I would ever see him again.  It’s hard to tell if you get through to people when they are impaired chemically, much less someone with the emotional baggage this man was carrying.  It took only moments to find out the answer to that question.

His old battered pickup hadn’t been gone from the parking lot for five minutes when it pulled back up to the front door.  I wondered how this conversation would go, but it turned out that he only wanted directions to a different business on the same street.  I gave him instructions to the place, only a block away.

He replied, “I’m so stupid.  I’ll get lost; I know I will.”

I suggested that it wasn’t stupidity at all, but just that he needed better instructions.  I walked outdoors with him and to the street, where I pointed out the sign and parking lot of the business he wanted.  As we walked back toward his truck, he seemed encouraged.

“If we weren’t out here, I’d give you a hug.”

I’ve mentioned that I don’t really do the hugging thing, right?  But this guy needed the touch of another human.  I reached out my hand and gripped his firmly for a moment, finishing the action with a manly half-hug.  He was surprised, but quickly returned the grip, squeezing my hand like a vise.

I said the only words I had at that moment.  “God bless you, friend.”

There was a smile on his face for the first time.  “I’ll come back to see you soon.”

I believe he will.

Angel?  Probably not.

Still–I don’t know.



“Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it.”
(Hebrews 13:2-NLT)

“At the end of the day, compassion and love will win.”
(Terry Waite~English humanitarian and author)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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Under the Wings

I have words welling up inside of me.  They have been spilling out for a couple of hours already tonight.  I am ashamed to say that I faithfully wrote them all down on pages in front of me–and then deleted every single one of them.

There are times when the truth that is actually trying to break out from its prison inside of me has to push aside all the noise, and the ideas, and the fluff just to get to the surface.  Then, instead of screaming and jumping up and down to get my attention, it just stands there quietly, waiting its turn.  I don’t always notice in a timely manner.  The unassuming, the patient but essential, is not what gains our notice in this rowdy world, is it?  We give way to the loud and boisterous, the implausible dressed in the ridiculous garb of hyperbole, but seldom do we stand and listen for the soft, steady voice of the foundational truths.
After hours of striving, I am listening.  You see, the sum of my literary regurgitation earlier was this: There are no safe places–places where we can go to lock out the problems, the people, and the fears that surround us in this brave, new world in which we live.  And finally, after all that time, and all those words, I remember.  There is a safe place, but it will never be found in the location we expect, nor will it be protected by the frail hands of any human being.
Photo: Jeannean Ryman
I have been made aware through various means, over the course of my life in a general way and in the last few days in a more pointed manner, that we cannot depend on the safety that governments and their laws inspire, nor even the security that a good job promises.  Those assurances are empty and ultimately, vain.
I am not the first to come to this conclusion, nor will I be the last.  It is not a new idea.  Centuries ago, the Teacher, when He walked with those who followed Him, reminded them that worry was ineffective, even useless.  Planning for tomorrow would lead to disappointment.  He could have left them (and us) there, depressed and hopeless, but the next words gave new hope–and a solid place on which to rest.  He told them to look at the ravens and consider how much they worried, and how much they planned for the future.  
You are far more valuable to Him than any birds!
My photographer friend, Jeannean, recently captured, in her camera’s lens, the essence of what I am thinking tonight.  The photo, at first glance simply a drab, almost colorless image, is of a mother bird lying on the ground.  The lesser nighthawk has her wings slightly, almost nonchalantly, spread.  Then, as you gaze at the scene for a moment more, the whole picture suddenly comes into focus.  There are two chicks lying under her, one under each wing, protected from the sight of predators above and covered from the heat of the midday sun.  
A place of refuge.
More words from me would just muddy the waters tonight.  Well maybe just one more word–the word the Psalmist used often–a suggestion that we pause to contemplate what we have seen and heard.  

“He will cover you with His feathers.  He will shelter you with His wings. His faithful promises are your armor and protection.”
(Psalm 91:4~NLT)
“Under His wings, Under His wings,
Who from His love can sever?
Under His wings my soul shall abide
Safely abide forever.”
(from the hymn Under His Wings~William Cushing~American hymnwriter/pastor~1823-1902)
(Special thanks once again to my childhood friend, Jeannean Ryman for the use of her amazing photograph.  Jeannean has a gift for seeing the beauty in the ordinary and giving us a glimpse, too.  You may view many examples like this one at if you are interested
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved. 
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Without a Backward Glance

The little boy had stolen something from his school.  Now he was paying the price.  He wished he could go back to yesterday and just leave the beach ball where he found it.  But it was not to be.  The paddle came down on his tender posterior.  Whack!  Whack!  Whack!  He wiped away the tears and headed back to class.  If only it had never happened!

Fast forward a year or two and the same boy stands in front of his father, head dropped in shame.  The tool he should never have held in his hands was broken.  Not only that, he had attempted to hide it and even lied about it.  The eyes that looked down on him were sad, not angry.  Still, the miscreant wished he could go back to last week before he had taken the hammer from its place.  The cloth belt swung through the air.  Whack!  Whack!  Whack!  As he cried, he wished that he had never even touched the tool!  If only!

Again, we move quickly past another couple of years and look in on the boy at school.  He is not in trouble this time, for a change.

The austere aspect of Mrs. Dunham’s countenance almost disappeared into the twinkle of her eyes as she pulled the large volume from the little cubbyhole behind her desk.  Today, she would be introducing her students, most of them indifferent to her passion, to a subject she had studied extensively.

“Today students, we will begin to study Greek mythology, the study of the ancient Greek gods and goddesses, as well as some of their distant relatives.  We’ll be reading a number of stories over the next week or so.  Yes, they are just made-up stories, but we can learn a lot from this ancient civilization.”

A collective groan went up from the sixth graders.  Few of them had any interest in those stories.  There was at least one however, who had read many of them before and was anxious to discuss them again.  Over the next week, he was in his element, if only for the short time each day when they did their reading assignments and discussed yesterday’s.  Zeus, Hermes, Poseidon, Hades–each one was discussed and their feats described, to his great delight.

But, he knew one story was coming, one that he hated–well, disliked greatly anyway.

Sure enough, the day came when Mrs. Dunham opened the book to the story of Pandora and her box.  His face fell, and he wished that he had stayed home sick that day.  This story, he had no interest in reading, nor in discussing.  He couldn’t have told you why he disliked the story so.  He just knew that it made him horribly uncomfortable.

In the story, Pandora herself was a gift from Zeus to his subjects.  With her came a box.  The box was sealed closed and the king of Olympus gave instructions that it was never to be opened.  It almost goes without saying that the box eventually was opened.  How could it be otherwise?

Pandora, on a day when no one else was around, sneaked to the box, stealthily lifting the lid.  All she wanted was just one short glance inside–just one.  But, as she lifted the lid, through the narrow crack came all manner of flying evils, the sins and diseases and hardships which would make man faint under their load for all of time.  They all escaped, with no hope that they could be collected and stuffed back in the box again.

Suddenly aware that she had done a great evil, the lovely Pandora takes one more look into the box, just to see if perhaps she had avoided loosing at least one great horror on all of mankind.  Just one small creature, the only being in the box which wasn’t evil, remained in the bottom of the box.  Even so, it also flew as she opened the box wide.  As it flew, however, she realized that it was the one thing which would give aid to mankind in its sad state.  Amid all the evils, when all around was darkness and pain, there still would be hope.

The boy listened to the words once more and said to himself, “It’s not enough.  If only she had resisted the temptation.  If only.”

It has been long years since and the boy, now an aging man, long ago figured out the reason he dislikes the story of Pandora’s Box so bitterly.  The story of Pandora is the disappointing story of everyman.  There is not one of us who doesn’t wish that we had acted differently, spoken more gently, or taken a different course at some point in our life.  The damage is done, the evil loosed on the world, and the only thing we can do is to go forward in hope that the future will be better.  But, that almost seems just like wishing, not like anything solid at all.

We can’t go back.  Words said in anger can’t be unsaid.  Deeds done in malice can’t be undone.  We can’t turn back the clock to take any of it back, or to do things differently.  But, I don’t want to leave the impression that we are bereft of a remedy.  You see, there is hope; there is a light in the darkness.  Unlike the people who believed those Greek stories as their religion and were left at the mercy of gods and demi-gods who had none (mercy, that is), we don’t have such a God.

Grace holds out its hand as it tells us that the past doesn’t matter.  Grace gives us the opportunity to start fresh today, with a clean slate erased of all the misdeeds of yesterday.  The past is gone–wiped away.  That grace is ours through the gift of a Savior, who says, “Come to me and I’ll give you rest from your heavy load.  You don’t need to labor under the burden of the past another minute.”  Simple faith opens the way forward. Unlike the story of Pandora, we’re not left with a weak and ineffective hero.  No, our hope is a guarantee, not just a wish.

So, we’ll never again walk the paths we’ve already traveled.  In a way, that in itself is a great gift.  But, even though the penalty of the past is wiped away, we can still learn from it.  We must learn from it.

We start here. Now.  Where do we go from here?  It is indeed dark behind us.  And, we can stay right where we are, gazing into the darkness behind and wishing it were not so.  But, ahead the light shines brightly, inviting us to keep moving.  The road leads to the future and we may follow it with hope–real hope.

I think I want to take a stroll with hope–and you.  What do you say?

“Fear not for the future; weep not for the past.”
(Percy Bysshe Shelley~English lyric poet~1792-1822)

“And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts, through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”
(Romans 5:5~NET)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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Everyday Miracles

I look for them.  Sometimes, I find them.  Mostly they escape my view.  These old eyes are getting a little tired, you know.  But, it has become quite clear to me that the majority of extraordinary events occur right in front of us, in plain sight.  So, even though we are looking, we miss most of them.

Ask anybody.  “Can you name one miracle that you have seen in the last week?”  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

Anything?  I didn’t think so.

For most of us, the stuttering begins immediately after the stunned silence.  We might name an obscure event that happened to someone whose name we can’t remember.  If hard-pressed, we might be able to list one miracle we have seen ourselves in our lifetime.  But, one in the last week?  The answer is likely to come, “No.  Not a single one.”

I wonder if we have lost the perception of miracles because of this amazing technological age in which we live.  We turn on a device or two and we can communicate with anyone in the world almost instantly.  We carry gadgets that can track exactly where we are in the wide world.  Microwave ovens cook food in minutes; airplanes carry us to far off places at speeds that confound description.

Miracles, it seems, must compete with such man-made marvels to amaze and move us.  We are jaded, and our sense of proportion has become distorted since we left behind the innocence of our youth.  And, perhaps that is just the issue.

Who among us cannot remember chasing fireflies?  Remember that?  The long and hot summer day faded to twilight, with temperatures dropping to an almost bearable point.  Barefoot and desperate to stretch the day out as long as possible, we ran through the grass waving our hands at the twinkles which flashed teasingly.  Brightly they shone for an instant and we sped to the spot, awaiting another tell-tale flash.  When it came, it was feet from where we stood impatiently.  Jumping quickly toward the flash, we swung our hand toward the spot.  Not every time, but often enough, we would capture the little bug, with its tail section that flashed on and then off again like a turn-signal lamp on Dad’s fifty-seven Ford.  What an incredible creature!

The word miracle comes from the Latin which means a wonder, a marvel.  How does that not describe a firefly?  We are surrounded by similar marvelous creatures, by things that are wonderful beyond our ken.  Yet we commonly wander past a green lawn full of such creatures and don’t even notice them.  Every year, the miracle of new birth occurs as the trees put on their leafy clothes and provide us, not only with shade, but the very oxygen we breath.  How is that not a wonder?

Young ladies, just babies themselves a few years ago, visit the doctor and have pictures to show us of the tiny miracles growing inside their bodies.  How is new life not a marvelous thing?

I took a run through God’s creation tonight and realized that I have frequently missed many of these miracles myself.  The bull frogs began their rumbling chorus as I ran along the water’s edge and I wondered at their ability to thrive in the middle of a town.  The cicadas started their choir practice in the trees, one after another joining in until the entire wooded area was alive with their song.  The amazing insects have a life-span, between two and thirteen years, that far exceeds most other insects.  Their Creator has designed them to outlive their predators to insure the longevity of their species. These too, we used to chase in the evenings and catch them, just to feel the vibration of their wings as they buzzed and shook in our hands.

I came out of the trees and along the valley where the grassy field meets the wooded area, a small herd of deer lifted their heads from feeding to watch me.  Again, even with the town surrounding their habitat, they thrive, for the most part unharmed by the surrounding civilization.  The beauty of the noble animals is a wonder to me.

But then, I saw coming toward me on the trail, perhaps the most wonderful miracle of all.  The family was out for an evening outing, Dad and Mom walking rapidly.  Dad carried a baby in a backpack affair strapped to his shoulders and they both followed a boy who was pedaling his bicycle confidently, along with his younger sister.  She was also pedaling a bicycle, but not so very confidently.

I smile as I recall the scene at my grandchildren’s home the other day.  One of the little girls has just learned to ride without the aid of training wheels.  The action is not a thing of beauty, although the accomplishment is.  She rides as fast as she can, as if speed itself will keep her steed of iron and rubber upright.  It does, for a time.  Then she loses concentration for a second or two and swerves nervously.  The result is predictable. As she tumbles to the ground, there is no lying in a heap, no crying uncontrollably.  No–she jumps up and, flinging her leg over the machine anew, is flying low before anyone can approach her to help.

Not a miracle, you say?  Why, I remember pulling her up just to stand on weak, shaky legs as a baby!  I helped her to take some of her first steps!  I’d say that this is indeed a wonder!  And, it’s pretty marvelous!

Maybe it’s time for us to take a fresh look around.  The miracles aren’t the little gadgets we hold in our hands for communication.  The miracle is that we can communicate with each other at all.  The miracle isn’t the oven in which we cook our food.  The miracle is that our food gives us strength to live and love and grow.  We’re surrounded by miracles, if we just know where to look.

I heard a song the other day which started me thinking.  The country artist, Faith Hill, was singing about fireflies, and fairy tales, and Peter Pan.  Now, I don’t have a problem with using your imagination.  I’ve spent a good deal of my life doing just that.  My problem is that the person who wrote the song couldn’t be satisfied that those amazing and wonderful little bugs simply existed.  No, she had to make them into a little pretend fairy named Tinkerbell in order to be able to believe in a make-believe boy named Peter Pan.  It is a cute song, but it makes me ask if we’ve somehow lost our sense of wonder and the ability to marvel at the real world that exists around us.

I don’t have to make a firefly into Tinkerbell to marvel at what I hold in my hand.  What if we all looked at what we hold in our hands and realized what a miracle it is?  There is a whole world of things at which to wonder, a lifetime of events at which to marvel.

Time to clean our spectacles and get busy looking.

Seen any miracles lately?

“He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.”
(Albert Einstein~German-born physicist~1879-1955)

“I found a mayonnaise bottle and poked holes on top
To capture Tinkerbell.
And they were just fireflies to the untrained eye,
But I could always tell.”
(Lori McKenna~American folk singer/songwriter)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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The Side of the Road

She stands there, broken.
Gone to pieces.

We think the words mean that someone has lost control of their emotions, but they do have a double meaning. Both meanings fit my friend standing here today.  I call her my friend, but for all the time I have known who she is, I have never really known her.

Yet here she is, weeping as if she will never stop.  She may not–not inside anyway.  I talk with her and wipe away my own tears which well up without my permission.  The moment passes and she gains control, enough that we can take care of the business she came for.  But, once more before she leaves, the emotions pour out unchecked.  Through her sobs, she apologizes. I stutter out that we will pray, and she is gone.

Broken.  Gone to pieces.

And, I can’t fix her.  She may never be whole again.  Like Humpty Dumpty in the old children’s rhyme, she has fallen from her solid perch and been shattered, with no chance of human intervention which will undo the hurt that has been done.  Broken.

Funny.  Mere moments before, another woman stood in that very same spot, and I laughed with her as she described her little boy and his broken arm.  Yes, we laughed.  The boy has moved from the pain of the newly broken limb to the realization that he has a weapon with which to defend himself from his siblings.  And, he is using it.  Broken, but mending.  And, we laughed at the mental picture.

Just yesterday at lunch, I called the Lovely Lady’s attention to another poem in my little treasure book.

“That…” I said, pointing out a rather lengthy poem, “That describes exactly who I would like to be.”

The poem was one I had read in the dim dark past, but had forgotten, now rediscovering it just days ago.  It touched a sympathetic chord that resonates deep inside of me.

She read the whole thing.  Nodding her head in agreement, she quietly handed the little volume back to me.  We went on about our business, as if nothing had changed.  Perhaps, it hasn’t.

But today, I rejoiced with a traveler who was rejoicing in healing, and I wept with one who was moaning in the agony of loss.  Perhaps, as I say, nothing has changed.  Then again, perhaps it has.

I won’t repent of my resolve, but will do my best to live and serve here, by the side of the road.  I’m not an adventurer, nor a hermit.  I’m not even a world-traveler, but I find myself coming into contact with just such people almost daily.  There may yet be a way in which I can serve.

Our Savior was a friend of sinners.

Perhaps, I can be a friend to man, as well.

The House By the Side of the Road

There are hermit souls that live withdrawn
     In the peace of their self-content;
There are souls, like stars, that dwell apart,
     In a fellowless firmament;
There are pioneer souls that blaze their paths
     Where highways never ran;
But let me live by the side of the road
     And be a friend to man.

Let me live in a house by the side of the road,
     Where the race of men go by,
The men who are good and the men who are bad,
     As good and as bad as I.
I would not sit in the scorner’s seat,
     Or hurl the cynic’s ban;
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
     And be a friend to man.

I see from my house by the side of the road,
     By the side of the highway of life,
The men who press with the ardor of hope,
     The men who are faint with the strife.
But I turn not away from their smiles nor their tears,
     Both parts of an infinite plan;
Let me live in my house by the side of the road
     And be a friend to man.

I know there are brook-gladdened meadows ahead
     And mountains of wearisome height;
That the road passes on through the long afternoon
     And stretches away to the night.
But still I rejoice when the travelers rejoice,
     And weep with the strangers that moan,
Nor live in my house by the side of the road
     Like a man who dwells alone.

Let me live in my house by the side of the road
     Where the race of men go by;
They are good, they are bad, they are weak, they are strong,
     Wise, foolish–so am I.
Then why should I sit in the scorner’s seat,
     Or hurl the cynic’s ban?
Let me live in my house by the side of the road
     And be a friend to man.

(Sam Walter Foss~American poet~1858-1911)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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A Thief, Caught in the Act

I met a thief today.  No arrest will be made.  No court would ever convict her, but she stole nonetheless.  Perhaps she didn’t intend to do it.  She probably didn’t even know that she was stealing.  Even so, I can’t help but hear Dragnet’s Joe Friday intoning almost sadly, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse, Ma’am.”

While waiting on a customer this morning, I was interrupted by the jangle of the telephone.  Frequently, I ignore the phone when I’m by myself and busy with people, but I pulled away from the man, one of my regulars, to answer the call.  The lady on the line wanted us to ship her some merchandise, so I started the order.  We were on the homestretch, with me entering her address and contact information,  when she abruptly told me to hold on.  Just like that, she was gone.
There I sat, glued to the telephone, with no one on the other end, while the customer at the counter waited for me to get done and complete the transaction I had started with him.  A minute–two minutes–possibly even three, passed and suddenly she was back.  There was no apology; no explanation was forthcoming at all.  As if she had never left the conversation, she gave me the information I needed and within a minute or so, we were done.
Wait a minute!  I hear you say it already.  She’s a thief?  What did she steal?  
Just one thing.  Time.
Time is one of the few things in our lives of which there is actually a limited supply.  We have a predetermined number of seconds, minutes, and hours to live.  If you believe, as do I, that an all-knowing Creator has numbered your days before they were even begun, you begin to understand why I am jealous of those three minutes that my customer stole from me today.  Indeed, she stole not only from me, but from my customer, as he stood and fidgeted at the checkout counter.  That means that there are six minutes less in the flow of time, gone forever, never to be recouped.
“Time is of the essence.”  “A day late and a dollar short.”  “All in due time.”  “In the nick of time.”  Our language is full of sayings about time that make us realize that it is an essential commodity.  Not one that should be bought and sold, but one which should be treasured and dispensed carefully and thoughtfully.  Yet we are spendthrifts with the one thing which cannot ever be reclaimed, tossing it carelessly about as if it mattered not at all.  We are even cavalier about spending it for others.
Just in case you think that I am being too hard on the lady from my phone call today, I should make a confession myself.  I am also a thief of time.  Again and again, I have wasted the time of people who were kind enough to stand and speak with me, long after they had any interest in the conversation, long after they had other activities to get to.  And, still I droned on and on.  Perhaps, I even am guilty of doing that here.  At least you have the choice to click away from this post anytime, but if I fill this page with useless drivel (it could happen!), I have in a sense stolen that time away from you also.
I am not the kind of thief who sneaks around in the dark and jimmies the lock on your home.  I don’t carry a pack on my back to fill with your treasures.  No, I’m a pickpocket of sorts, lifting your most precious possession away from you right under your nose.  I have stood in the doorways to friends’ homes long after they should be abed, forcing them to listen to the sound of my monotonous voice.  Phone calls about nothing, arguments about even less–these are my common methods of larceny. 
Tonight, my error has hit me with an almost painful impact.  I thought to tell you of my displeasure with a customer who stole a measly three minutes of my time, but I realize that hers is merely a misdemeanor, while mine is grand theft.  I repent.  If I had sackcloth and ashes handy, I would make use of them.  
Perhaps, you might also have something similar to confess.  There does seem to be a fellowship of thieves which encompasses a huge number of us.  Maybe it is time for all of us to reform and determine to change our unscrupulous ways.  Just think of the minutes and hours which might be utilized to their fullest if we did stop stealing.  Imagine the great good which could be accomplished in those fleeting moments, if we didn’t insist on pilfering them for our own trivial uses.
I’m ready to do my part, I think.  I may find this change more difficult than controlling other appetites; may even learn that it is a futile undertaking.  I will, nevertheless make the attempt.
My first act of contrition will be to close this particular discussion without delay.  
It’s time to start redeeming the time!
“If you are a thief, quit stealing!”
(Ephesians 4:28a~NLT)
“Many years without slumbering (tick-tock, tick-tock),
His life seconds numbering (tick-tock, tick-tock),
But it stopped–short, never to go again
When the old man died.”
(from “My Grandfather’s Clock”~Henry Clay Work~American Composer~1832-1884)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved. 
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Rock-a-bye baby on the tree-top,
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle, and all.

They came to visit again this evening, that motley bunch of children.  We ate supper together–pizza from their daddy’s pizzeria.  (What a childhood!  No once-in-a-blue-moon pizza for them!)  It is a time-honored tradition by now, one which we protect jealously.  But, something is missing tonight.

He always comes too, their Mom’s younger brother.  They adore him and he pretends not to notice–not even to care.  But, all you have to do is wait until they are gathered around him, playing a game, and you may notice that his hand rests on the head of the littlest girl, or that he smiles a little more as he helps them.  I say that he always comes, but he is not here tonight.  His work has taken him away for a week to the bright lights of that city where things that happen there, stay there.  They miss him.  I miss him.

One by one, the children ask to be excused.  One, the next to the oldest, asks if he can turn on the CD player in the living room.  Not sure that the six year old is yet capable of managing the technical operation himself, I start to push away from the table, but he matter-of-factly suggests, “All I have to do is push the button marked “single”, right?”  When did he learn to read?  Something begins to nag at my brain at about the same time as the peppy children’s music begins to blast away.

Dinner over and games put away, the children take a final twirl around the living room, dancing to the music, and–they are gone.  Silence falls.  I suddenly realize that I didn’t want them to leave, either them or their Mom.  It is not always so.  There are evenings when I can’t hurry them out the door quickly enough.  The noise and hubbub, along with the occasional scuffle and stray whine, overwhelm this aging man.  Not tonight.  That something nagging at my brain is beginning to grow clearer.

Suddenly it came to me.  I realized that they are growing up too quickly.  And, just as suddenly, I remembered how fast their mother and uncle grew up before them.  A blink of the eye, a snap of the fingers, and they were gone.  Oh, not gone from my life, but gone certainly from the familiarity that living under the same roof engenders.  Gone from the dependence on us for their necessities.  Gone from the need to wake them in the morning, to remind them of responsibilities, to clothe and feed them. I was never an absentee father, but still, I don’t remember where the time went.

I pushed the thoughts down deep and headed out the door myself to take a bicycle ride.  But, for some reason, the entire hour I rode, I heard a little piping voice singing in my head.  The voice was singing the words (almost) of the song you saw above as you first began reading.  My thoughts carried me back over the years, and I saw the cute little two year old blondie, unable to pronounce the words, but still singing at the top of her lungs.  “Rock-a-bye baby, In tee-top, Wind-a-blownin’, cadle ‘ock, Bough bake, cadle faw, Down come baby, cadle, an’ gall.”  Just as in my head tonight, back then it was repeated ad infinitum with no variation by the little diva.

My mind shifted gears at about the same time as I shifted the bicycle’s down to come to a stop.  The original meaning of the old children’s rhyme is lost in the mists of the centuries, but I have always seen that treetop as a place of safety, of ease, where children are laid for protection and comfort.  Up above the reach of savage beasts, with the wind gently rocking the cradle, the baby sleeps and knows no want.  The picture is a serene one and we relax, knowing that our children are safe.  Or are they?

Suddenly, and without warning, the gentle breeze turns into a gale, the cradle swaying and tilting crazily.  The place of safety has become a place of terror, for the parents down below at least.  Perhaps the child, high above the world, feels the exhilaration of an amusement park ride and, having no understanding of danger, lets out a whoop of joy.  The parents begin to see the peril of their assumption that the treetop is a safe place.  But, before they can make even an effort to bring the child down, the branch cracks under the stress, spilling the precious contents of the suspended cradle into the air, the child they wanted only to protect falling into oblivion.

I will admit that I don’t understand the brain that conceives of such a rhyme as a children’s song.  What a terrible thing!  But, it is, after all, only a bit of doggerel, reminding us that there may be other ways to do things.  And, we do them differently, don’t we?

Our children are not placed in inaccessible places, to grow up high above the world, but they are raised in the very same world in which we walk and live–a world where dangers exist, but where help is close by at all times.  We walk with them, holding their hands to cross the street, tucking them into warm beds at night.  We teach them to navigate the stormy seas of life, explaining the dangers, as well as the incredible joys that are to be found.  True, the ride is a bit bumpier, the road much rougher than the gently swaying boughs of isolation and protection, but the child learns, growing and maturing into a young adult who is fitted and ready to face the same world in which they grew up.

Which is safer?  I’m confident that no answer is necessary.

But, there is another application which speaks to me tonight.  I wonder if we really have learned the larger lesson of the children’s song.  Seeking distance from the noise and danger of the world we live in, we isolate ourselves from its unpleasantness, choosing instead the safety of our own treetops.  From here, we can look down on what happens below and say, “Not my problem.  I’m safe.”  We hide in our work, in our castle-like home, in the fortress we call a church, thinking that in separation we’ll find safety.  I have to wonder how that is working out for us.  Isolation only alienates us from the help, the fellowship, which we desperately need, guaranteeing that there is more danger in the world, not less.

How about it?  I think I feel a gale coming up.  It might be a good time to look for a better place to sleep.

All this talk of rocking cradles is reminding me that sleep, though a great waste of time, is necessary even for me. I believe that I’ll find a place of rest soon.

Sweet dreams, fellow travelers!

“For you will go out with joy, and be led forth with peace; the mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.”
(Isaiah 55:12~NASB)

“Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure.  The fearful are caught as often as the bold.”
(Helen Keller~blind & deaf American author~1880-1968)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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A Desolate Place

The extended holiday weekend has come to an end.  If the pile of merchandise orders which the Lovely Lady and I pulled and prepared for processing tonight hadn’t brought the hiatus to a screeching halt, the consideration of what tomorrow promises would have.  I am not elated.

Perhaps, the book I find myself perusing tonight has contributed to my melancholy.  Always enchanted by the hunt for a bargain, or a treasure, we spent the last couple of days digging through flea markets and antique stores.  One of the treasures (also a bargain) we came back with was this little book of poems, some famous, some obscure.  I have never really loved poetry, but these poems move me.  I am not sure if the book has brought on the pensive mood; perhaps it is the other way around.  Regardless, I have dabbed a tear or two as I read and re-read these old pieces of romantic twaddle.  Silly, isn’t it?  

We are emotional creatures, you and I.  The male of the species is reluctant to admit it, but there is so little difference between the sexes in this respect that it would be hard to prove any exists, save in the ways we show it outwardly.  I have thankfully reached a certain age where it is not considered as much of a disadvantage to speak of it anymore.  That said, I still have perfected the subtle movements necessary to wipe away, without drawing attention, the occasional stray tear which escapes unbidden in public.  I will not divulge what happens out of sight of others, including the Lovely Lady, lest all of you (her too) think less of me.  I am, after all, a Manly Man.  You know–a man who is comfortable in his own skin, but who doesn’t use skin care products.  Prefers large dogs to cats, and so on.  

The little blueish-green book I hold in my hand has a copyright date of 1945.  No wonder the poetry is melancholy.  The Second World War had dragged most countries into its deadly embrace for almost six years.  Millions died, including many civilians.  The world saw the horror of the Holocaust, and death marches, and near the end–the atomic bomb.  Victory brought hope, but many did not return home.  It was a melancholy time.  

Still, I sit and thumb through the pages.  Yellowed with age, they slide obligingly from one selection to the next without the need to lick my fingers, as most new paper seems to require these days.  The slight odor of cigarette smoke, perhaps a remnant of an earlier time when the dangers of that habit were unknown, emanates from the volume.  I don’t love stale smoke, but this doesn’t offend as I consider the possibility that a GI’s wife may have sat nervously with it as she awaited her love’s return.  She might even have shed tears at the sad wartime verses, or have smiled hopefully as she read the more cheerful children’s verses.  Passing the time in expanding her knowledge of popular literature, the moments may have slipped by more easily.  

I know–I know.  It could just as easily have been a spinster schoolteacher who turned the pages in her boarding house room at night.  Or, perhaps the farmer’s wife, sneaking a page in here and there as she labored to be ready for her husband’s return from the fields, tired and hungry, demanding his supper.  

How do I know it was a woman who read the little volume?  The frontispiece has the inscription, “To Ruth, from Joyce.”  I’ll never know who Ruth was, but there is a certain companionship with this faceless lady, as I read “The House by the Side of the Road,” penned by Sam Walter Foss, or “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer, evidently one of her favorites.  It is the only poem I see that has any marking on it, a simple check mark beside the dark black and white photograph of the poet.  (“Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree.”)

And then, as I sit and think about the words I write here, I wonder why I bother to put them down.  I have no point to be made, no larger truth to offer tonight.  All I know is that I’ve felt this sadness before, perhaps a longing for something more.  You’ve felt it too at times, haven’t you?  

The preacher in me wants to preach, but that’s not what is needed tonight.  You’ve heard those words before, the sermons and the lessons.  Sometimes, there is simply an empty spot that wants to be filled.  It’s not a spiritual need, but just a little homesickness looking for a loving pat on the hand and a cheery there, there, reassuring us that all is still okay in the great big world.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow seemed to know exactly what was needed for such times.  I hope you won’t mind if I conclude with his words tonight.  Written a hundred and fifty years ago, they seem intended specifically for me tonight.  It is an excerpt from his poem entitled “The Day Is Done”.

Read from some humbler poet,
Whose songs gushed from his heart,
As showers from the clouds of summer,
Or tears from the eyelids start;

Who, through long days of labor,
And nights devoid of ease,
Still heard in his soul the music
Of wonderful melodies.

Such songs have power to quiet
The restless pulse of care,
And come like the benediction
That follows after prayer.

Then read from the treasured volume
The poem of thy choice,
And lend to the rhyme of the poet
The beauty of thy voice.

And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares, that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently, steal away.

“And He said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest awhile.'”
(Mark 6:31a~ESV)

“Sitting here…. Can’t sleep. Beautiful evening, listening to the trill of giant frogs and tropical insects in the night…so familiar because I am home, and have heard it all a million times in the past. So very close to home, just down the road at the most beautiful homestead, with some of my most favorite people, ever…And lovely as it has been, I am feeling a little melancholy…maybe you can’t go home again…but, you can never quit trying.”
(Lisa Moye Picciandra, lifted from my feed on Facebook tonight)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved. 

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