The Hoarder


“You’ve got that look in your eyes again,” she says, with a worried look in her own.  She doesn’t have to tell me.

Over the last few years, the look has come to my eyes more and more often.  I want to blame it on getting older.  I want to say it is the result of caring too much, of being too conscientious.  

I want to.  I can’t.

The Teacher reassured His followers with the comforting words.  “Tomorrow will worry about itself.  Today’s trouble is enough for today.”  I have no argument with the logic and I don’t often find myself worrying about tomorrow.  I do, however, worry about yesterday.

That’s right.  Yesterday.  

I stack the bad decisions, the sad events, and the unfinished business higher and higher until it has nowhere to topple but on my head.  I remember what that person said and keep a record of what this friend did, saving it all up to map out the future with my hard-gained wisdom and my understanding of human nature.   

I like historical perspective.  I want to think it makes the future more predictable.  I’m beginning to believe, rather than providing focus, that the past often makes the path ahead more blurry.

Are you a collector?  Do you have things that you gather up and hoard?  

I do.  Old shoes.  

No, really.

In my closet, there is a pile of black leather shoes.  Each pair looks just like the other.  Size ten and a half.  D width.  There are probably six pairs of Rockwell Pro-Walker shoes sitting on the floor.  Well, they may be piled up someplace else, too.  I really don’t recall.  

You see, I buy a new pair of the same shoes each year.  The old ones get worn and don’t look so good, nor do they feel as comfortable as they first did.  I don’t buy lots of shoes, don’t need a different shoe for every occasion, just the Rockwell Pro-Walkers.  And, I do realize that old, worn-out shoes have limited uses.  One of the reasons I keep them around is for when I need to do dirty work: digging in the mud, mowing the lawn, or other such tasks.  But, I suppose one pair would suffice for that.

Why then, do I have six pairs of old shoes in my closet?  (There would be more, but I’m pretty sure the Lovely Lady sneaks them out to the trash when I’m not looking.)  I really can’t explain it.  There might be a lot of dirty jobs to do and I’ll have to have more than just one pair of old worn-out shoes.  I don’t want to need them and not have them.  What if the ones I use for mowing get torn up?  What then?

My niece looked up at the mantle at my house today and asked a perfectly reasonable question. “Uncle Paul, why do you keep a clock that doesn’t work?”

As I glanced at the old clock sitting there, my brain flipped through the possible answers I could give to the inquisitive nine-year old.  “It used to tell time just fine,” didn’t seem to make sense.  “I’m going to get it fixed someday,” was a little better, but still short of the mark.  

I finally settled on the following piece of wit and wisdom.  The truth is, it seems neither witty nor very wise, as I consider it tonight.  “Well honey, that clock is actually right at least twice a day.  That’s why I keep it.”

She wasn’t impressed with my logic.  I’m not either.

It’s not a great reason to keep a non-functioning clock sitting on the mantle, is it?  The clock is of no practical use whatsoever.  Come to think of it, neither are those extra pairs of worn-out shoes.  It may be time to see what else is taking up space in my closet.  

For that matter, a lot of the clutter in my head needs to be disposed of, as well.

Life is too short, too precious, to waste in letting the past overshadow the future.  It’s too short to let that look in my eyes change the focus of my vision.  Time to clear out the old; time to deal with each new day as it comes.

I think I’m going to let Someone else worry about what comes next.  

He’s already taken care of the past, hasn’t He?

“Be still my soul; thy God doth undertake 
To guide the future, as He has the past.”
(from the hymn “Be Still My Soul” ~ Katharina Von Schegel)

“Charity gives itself rich; Covetousness hoards itself poor.”
(Old German proverb)

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

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Christmas Eve Inspiration

“Oh Great God, be small enough to hear me now.”

The words of the song by a popular Christian singer ease through the grill fabric of my desktop speakers, like thousands of others which have squeezed out of the little electromagnetic devices in nights past.  Most of those nights have been spent in hours of thought, and moments of prayer, and fleeting instants of inspiration.

This time, the words seem to fall from the little off-white plastic towers and land right-side-up on my desktop, looking for all the world like inspiration to me.

I have been contemplating Christmas this evening.  It is now, after all, the eve of that holy day–the day when all of the world pauses, if only for a moment, to acknowledge the Infant King lying in the manger.  That manger, meant to hold fodder for the beasts of the field, for just this single moment in time, holds the King of all Creation.

I look at the words, lined up on my desk, awaiting my instructions.

Be small enough…

In my mind, I saw our family gathering earlier in the evening.  My great-niece, not yet two months old, was the center of attention as she was passed from the loving arms of one person after another.  Even the little children had their turn at holding the helpless child.  She can do nothing for herself, but is dependent on those who care for her–for food, for warmth, for comfort.

I couldn’t help but turn my eyes to the other children present and think of a time when they also were as helpless.  No more.

Our Christmas gatherings have seen the ebb and flow of babies and children, grown to adolescents and adults.  With the new babies now from those who were babies in my arms just a few years ago, the process has come full circle, and promises to go around again soon.  It seems that they grow so fast.

It has always been so.

I stroke the little tyke on her face and speak in baby talk.  I care not one whit that I am surrounded by others who are adults and even children.  They do the same, completely at ease with the sweet girl.  How easy it is to crowd around her and show her love.

Oh Great God…

The words begin to take hold and I begin to understand anew the King who became a helpless baby.

In the famous children’s tale, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, L. Frank Baum brings together his fantastic crew of characters, all needing a life-changing touch, and he moves them through a series of adventures to the Emerald City.  When they finally come into the throne room where the Great and Powerful Oz supposedly will see them, they are in awe and terror of this fearful ruler.  He does nothing to assuage their fears, with his illusions and fakery.  They leave in despair, having received no hope–only a futile assignment.

How discouraging.  And tragic.  But that is the image many of us have of the King of all the universe.  To us, He is a distant, powerful, and unreasonable despot.  We couldn’t be more wrong.

I sat beside my grandson, already so tall, this evening, and brushed the unruly blond hair away from his eyes.  He is growing up faster than I want him to, but no faster than he should.  It seems only months ago, he was a baby in my arms to be held and quieted as his mother and father had some much needed time to finish their meal in peace.  Now, he is explaining the purpose of the maneuver we call the pass in several sports.

“Not that I know everything about all sports, you know…”  I hide my smile of pride, so he will not be embarrassed.  His vocabulary is extensive and the grasp he has on his world is expanding exponentially.  It is a process I have lived through myself, and then experienced with his mother and uncle before him.

…be small enough to hear me now.”

The great and powerful King became one of us.  Not full grown and regal, to rule over us, but He came–a helpless baby–dependent on those who loved and cared for Him.  He grew to be an intelligent child, explaining things to the adults in His world.  When He had matured into the stature of a man, other men readily followed Him.

He came as a baby–giving up absolute power in order to accomplish the ultimate feat of love and redemption.

He came as a baby.

Is He small enough to hear me?

What a Great God we have.

Worship Christ, the Newborn King.

“I am Oz, the Great and Terrible,”
spoke the beast, in a voice that was one great roar.
“Who are you, and why do you seek me?”
(From “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” ~ L Frank Baum ~ American author ~ 1856-1919)

“The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.  We have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
(John 1:14 ~ NIV)

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

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The Spirit–of Christmas

I want to write about fun stuff.

It’s Christmas.  I want to fill pages with candy canes and tinsel.  Santa Claus and hula hoops.  Happy voices raised in joyful song–the same voices laughing uproariously at an old memory retold. Children’s noses pressed against windows as the snow falls outside and a promise of a White Christmas.

In short, I want to get–and keep–the Christmas Spirit.

What I actually get is the chance to take an indigent man to his “grandfather’s” house miles from my warm home, where I should be, helping the Lovely Lady prepare for our family dinner.  And he stinks.

I thought I was safe today.  The music store isn’t open.  No one can come through the doors of my business and ask for a favor.  There is no chance that I can be convinced to purchase any unwanted instrument–no possibility of a request to donate money for food or gas.

I went to church and stood up front to sing.  Two services.

We sang beautiful Christmas carols.

“Joy to the world.  The Lord is come.
Let earth receive her King.”

“Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead nor doth He sleep…
Peace on earth, good will to man.”

Haven’t I done my part?  Can I go home to my beautiful family now?  Can we laugh and plan and anticipate the coming Day?  It is warm in my home and the cold world will be safely kept at bay.  There is nothing to dampen our spirits there.

The Lovely Lady and I finish our part of the worship service at church and walk out into the foyer.  He is just coming in the back door.  He is dirty and wearing tattered old clothes.  I can smell the stale tobacco mixed with body odor from where I am.

“I need to talk with you,” he says, without even noticing who I am.

I almost laugh.  Almost.  It is the same man who has walked in the door of my music store multiple times over the last year.  He uses my phone.  I have purchased meals for him.  I even hugged him once.  The smell stayed with me until I showered that night.

Even at my church, I can’t escape him.  He doesn’t recognize me, but he needs help once more.  He needs a ride to a town thirty miles distant from mine.

“No, I can’t help you.”  I hear my voice say the words and realize with a sinking feeling in my stomach that I will do it anyway.  If I turn him away, he will walk in the near freezing temperatures.  The last time I was outside the snow flurries in the air were blowing sideways into my face.  The chill was trapped in my clothes for a long time.

I will take him.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I am not doing it because I want to.  I am trapped.  I won’t sleep tonight if I don’t.  I know who I am and I know what my faith requires of me.  I’ll do it, but I won’t like it.

All the way to our destination, the stench is in my nostrils.  I am not exaggerating when I tell you it made my nose run and my eyes burn.  I was unhappy and feeling sorry for myself.

When do I get my happy time?  I want the cheerful, carefree joy of Christmases past.

“Christmas, Christmastime is here
Time for toys and time for cheer!”

As I grit my teeth and prepare to endure the trip, I begin to hear the voice of my passenger and the words he is saying.  Parents who didn’t want him, a string of foster homes, guardians who offer beer to children to keep them quiet, a girlfriend who is strung out on drugs and kicked him out of her apartment this morning, a friend who died of an overdose in the cold last week–the quiet, matter-of-fact recitation goes on.  I have heard the tall tales this man can tell to get what he wants.  He can spin yarns that will pull the wallet right out of your pocket. These are not those.

The pain in the telling is almost tangible.  The tears in his eyes as he grips my hand while he alights from my car after we reach his destination are not manufactured.  He has entrusted me with his history.  Not because he will get anything further from me.  Simply because we are together, being honest with each other.

He doesn’t offer me any compensation for the ride.  He never apologizes for the inconvenience.  But, as I drive away to make the half-hour trip back home, I get it.  Finally, I get it.

The Spirit of Christmas.

It’s not about feeling all jubilant, or cheerful, or even nostalgic.  The Spirit of Christmas doesn’t come from playing Santa Claus, or from decorating your house, or from getting that bicycle or iPad you hoped for.  Warm fuzzies have absolutely nothing to do with the Spirit of Christmas.

The King of Highest Heaven saw us standing in the foyer, with no way to get to where we needed to be.  We were (and are) smelly, and rude, and vile.  And, unlike the poor excuse for a human that I am, He didn’t argue, didn’t resent the imposition, didn’t have to be dragged screaming and kicking to obey.

He just said, “Yes. I will give them a ride.  I will be the way for them.”

It has always taken me awhile to comprehend truth, even when it is right in front of my face.  I think I understand (for today, at least).

There was no laughter, no elation in heaven as the Baby was born.  This was no party He was coming to–no festive occasion.

The Spirit of Christmas reaches down to the dirty, the weak, the spiteful, and the wicked.  It wraps its arms around them, despite the stink.

It says, “No charge.”  It declares, “Every one of you can come along for the ride.”

The Christmas Spirit?  It starts deep in our hearts and reaches to the world around us.   What do you say we work together on spreading a little of that around in the days to come?

We may not get all the laughter and jolly fun we think we need.

But, I’m thinking the real thing might be just a little better.  It will probably last a little longer, too.  

“A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men.”
(from “Christmas Bells” ~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow ~ American poet ~ 1807-1882)

“You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.”
(John Bunyan ~ English author ~ 1628-1688)

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

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Class Clown

“I saw this and thought of you, Paul.”

The words accompanied a post on my Facebook wall.  It happens frequently these days.  One would expect, wouldn’t one?, that the post would be some piece of insightful wisdom or some profound truth tailor-made for exegesis in these essays.

Well?  That is what I should find, is it not?

Alas, the answer to that question is inevitably negative.  Again and again, the post I see is a pun, or a photographic play on words, perhaps even a page full of pun-fully (and possibly, painfully) silly witticisms, suitable for short quips and insertion into conversation at odd times.  I am, it seems, well-known for such drolleries, having made a habit of posting many for the amusement (or disgust) of my friends.

It occurred to me the other day that some things never change.  I know I have told you that all of life is one change after another, suggesting that we should give in to the inescapable fact that nothing stays the same.  In some sense, it seems, I may have led you astray.

I have spent a lifetime as the class clown, my claim to fame seeing to the entertainment of those around me.  I haven’t always been successful at the task, but I keep trying.  I’m aware that more than a few of my attempts at humor have been more annoying than amusing, but that hasn’t stopped me from making the effort.

It is only in the last few years that I have begun to recognize where this desire to make people laugh comes from.  It’s not something I like to think about.  I’m even a little reticent to speak of it.

Even so, I have confessed before to this need that I have–this desire to be noticed by others.  I don’t like for the parade to be passing me by; I want to be a clown in it.  Funny thing, we all have this same need built into us, from the most extroverted right on down to the most shrinking of violets that exists.

We need to know that we matter, that other people see us.  I mean, really see us.

I was walking across the parking lot at church one day recently.  A friend approached, her face lighting up as she walked toward me.  I smiled in return, gratified that she was happy to see me.  As I began to voice a greeting, she spoke excitedly to the lady walking behind me.

“I’m so sorry I missed you the other afternoon!  I hoped you would be here today.”  My face must have given away my chagrin at thinking the welcome was for me.  “Oh, I’m sorry, Paul.  I didn’t see you there.  How are you today?”

I recovered and greeted her, moving off quickly to allow the two ladies time to visit.  It also gave me time to tend to my bruised ego.

I want to be seen!  I want to be the person being greeted effusively, the one for whom the welcome bubbles up from the heart.  Oh, don’t get me wrong.  Often, it is.  I don’t think I’m invisible, nor do I want for people who enjoy my company.  It’s simply that–well,I always hope for more–just a little bit more.

I could go on.  There are people who feel invisible.  I know of folks who actually are invisible to most of us.  They want to be seen, too.  They want to be seen as humans, not as homeless or poor.  They want to be seen as loved, not as castoffs in a nursing home waiting to die.  They want to be seen as important, not as ignorant and uneducated.

We all, every one of us, want–no, more than that–we need to be seen.

Funny.  This time of year, this season of anticipation, is about exactly that.  The whole of humanity has spent all their lives being clowns, acting out in order to be noticed by a Creator who actually never stopped noticing them.

Christmas is about a God who sees us.

He didn’t look past the homeless, the poor, the aged, and the handicapped to the wealthy and beautiful, or the powerful and brilliant.  He looked at each one of us.

Right directly at me.  At you.

And, He said, “I’ve got news for you!  It’s great news of incredible joy for every single one of you!”  I’m pretty sure that it was no accident that those words were said to the poor sheep tenders who had the night shift.  These people were used to being overlooked.  They expected it.  They were not educated.  They were not wealthy.  They had no power.  They were the lowest of the low in Jewish society, not even recognized as responsible legal witnesses in their court system.

But, on that night they knew, beyond a doubt, that He saw them.  With no jumping up and down, no screaming fits, and no comedy routines He looked at them, and at us, and said,  “For you–the gift of a Savior–because I see you, and I love you.”

He sees me!  He sees you!  How great our joy!

I’ll continue to pepper my friends with puns; they’re nothing to sneeze at.  But, I’ll no longer do it to be sure I’m seen.  I know that we’re made to laugh and enjoy life and it’s my contribution to the process.

Perhaps, just once in awhile, someone could send me a thoughtful and intellectual quote, too.

Even clowns have feelings, you know.

The Little Boy and the Old Man

Said the little boy, “Sometimes I drop my spoon.”
Said the old man, “I do that too.”
The little boy whispered, “I wet my pants.”
“I do that too,” laughed the little old man.
Said the little boy, “I often cry.”
The old man nodded, “So do I.”
“But worst of all,” said the boy, “It seems
Grown-ups don’t pay attention to me.”
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
“I know what you mean,” said the little old man.”
(Shel Silverstein ~ American poet ~ 1930-1999)

“And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
(Luke 2:10,11 ~ ESV)

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

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Spring In My Heart

Mr. Scrooge watched the annual Christmas Parade from my front yard this year.  
I’m sure it was he.  The word humbug never passed his lips, but winter was in his heart and he hated every second of the festive nighttime parade.
I know it was Scrooge, because I saw him in the reflection of the window as I passed by.  
I heard him scold the children for their high spirits and for their forgetfulness to wait on the porch until time for the parade to pass by.  I actually saw him refuse the request of the sweet little girl who merely wanted to sit on his lap and share the anticipation with him.  Halfway through the parade, I was right there with him as he walked away from the happy group on the curb and back into the house.
The Christmas lights glowed warmly in the house, but his thoughts were dark and cold.  He sat in a corner of the darkened room and waited impatiently for the cacophony of the sirens and fire engine horns to die away.  He wondered if this was what it was to grow old, as he grew angry at the constant clamor outside.
Christmas spirit?  Humbug!
Later, after the parade had passed and the children had gone home, he finally allowed himself to consider what was happening to him.  I’d like to tell you that I was up to the task of throwing the old grouch out myself, but the truth is he realized that he’d overstayed his welcome all on his own.
“I’m going out for a run.”  It was already almost ten o’clock at night, and the inertia of an evening spent in a dark place wasn’t easy to break free from.  It had to be done.
She knows that I don’t want to go out in the cold.  She also knows how much I need it.  
“I’ll keep track of you on my phone.”  The GPS tracking program is for my safety as much as for her peace of mind, but I actually think as I head out the door about the fact that she may be able to see where I am physically, but the program can’t show her where I am emotionally.  
It doesn’t matter.  She already knows.
You see, the White Witch–she from C.S. Lewis’s imagination–has been at work in my spirit for awhile now.  It is her intent to make it always winter, and never Christmas there.  She has almost succeeded this year.  A late-fall ice storm was only the beginning, as adversity piled upon responsibility, and news about an old friend who is slipping away was added to the stew.  My mind churned and stirred the events and news together, and before I knew, the past and the present were coloring the future.
It would always be winter.  Christmas–true Christmas–would never come.
So, I ran.  In the dark.  In the cold.  And, as I ran, the dark winter in my heart grew stronger.  The remaining little piles of snow and ice from the storm last week got in my way as I ran, making parts of the way dangerous.  I noticed the debris which unthinking folks had left behind after the parade and my ire increased as I once again remembered my dissatisfaction during the event.  
My eyes down, I ran along the street, dodging ice, and cars, and trash.  
Dark and cold.
Then it hit me.  I was surprised at how quickly the realization dawned.
It’s not so dark out here as I thought!  As I ran, at ten o’clock at night, there was a shadow cast on the sidewalk.  My eyes turned skyward.  The full moon in the sky above produced a light that couldn’t be ignored.  The astronomers say that it is the smallest full moon of the year.  Tonight, that mattered not at all.  
It wasn’t so dark!  I had thought it was, but the light shone into the darkness and would not be denied.  Somehow, that thought seemed familiar.  Now, what was it?  Oh never mind–it’ll come to me…
Crocus in Snow (Photo: Meneerke Bloem)
I ran on, but again a revelation occurred to me.  It wasn’t as cold as I had imagined when I left the warmth of my home.  True, it had felt cold as I started, but the exertion of burning calories had built up a certain amount of heat and I was actually too warm in the clothes I had selected for my run. 
Winter’s not such a big deal!  The snow isn’t all gone, but it will give way to the warmth.   Winter will always give way to spring.  Always.
I am aging, but I’m not yet old.  I may never enjoy the horrible tumult of sirens and air horns blaring in a parade, but I will enjoy the antics of children as they anticipate joy.  I will hold my granddaughter on my lap and share her enthusiasm for life.
There are yet dreams to be dreamed and goals to be reached.  Christmas will come again!

Ah, you say, this doesn’t apply to me; I’m not a runner

It doesn’t matter.  In the still of a quiet room, in the peace of a new dawn, the Child is waiting to be noticed.  By grandparents and by college students.  By athletes and by couch potatoes.  By introverts and by extroverts.  He is waiting.

The truth of who our Creator is is demonstrated through His creation and often it takes the silence of solitude for us to see it.  His truth won’t be hidden forever in the noise and hubbub of the artificial world we have made for ourselves. We have only to open our eyes and our hearts and He is there.
The light and fervor of the true meaning of Christmas are waiting to be felt and experienced.  The dark, cold winter must give way before the brilliance and warmth of the King who came as a baby.
I want to close on an optimistic note; my intention is to encourage and not to distress.  But, I know that the witch of winter will come knocking again.  It may be soon.
I intend to be out running when she does.  
Springtime is just up the road a bit.
“Somewhere in the cold of the first winter, there was an optimist imagining the first spring.”
(Robert Brault ~ American writer)
“As long as the earth remains, 
there will be planting and harvest,
cold and heat;
winter and summer, 
day and night.”
(Genesis 8:22 ~ CEV)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved. 
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Does Love Smell?

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 some time, I told 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 His 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 self-righteous 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. 2013. All Rights Reserved.

Edited and reprinted from a post on 12/14/12.

Slimy Things

“Where’s Dorothy?”
The question appears on the monitor’s screen and I stare at the words, my thoughts flying back forty years without any direction from the person in charge of them.  That should be me—or so I had believed.
But, no.  My thoughts don’t need permission, it seems, to go where they will.  Within seconds I am in the band hall in my high school again, French horn on my lap.   Mr. Zook is on his podium, the bright lights above shining off of his bald head.  His cynical smile is in place and someone is about to become a target for his sarcasm.  I’m sure it isn’t me.  I have been careful to play only the notes that are on the page before me and even remembered to get that forte section leading into the key change exactly as he described it when we went through this piece last week.  No, it must be some other unlucky person, or perhaps even an entire section, who is going to suffer his ire this time.  We don’t have long to wait.
“Dorothy.”  Startled, the pretty girl in the alto saxophone section snaps her head up and pins her full attention on the man behind the conductor’s stand.  She doesn’t make a sound. 
“I wonder if you could be bothered to change keys where the rest of us do, there at measure ninety-six, Dorothy.  We would let you keep playing in the old key, but then all the rest of us would have to transpose everything, and that would be a lot more work than just having you read the key signature correctly.”  His acerbic manner, no doubt has been honed by many years of dealing with teenagers, but it is overkill in this situation.
The blond-haired girl, with the barest hint of freckles on her nose, buries her face in her hands and, blushing a bright red, promises to get it right next time.  Shooting a final dart from his eyes, the director turns his attention elsewhere, leaving the mortified young lady to recover and mark her music with the ever present pencil on her music stand.  The next time we play through that key change, there are no unseemly notes proceeding from the general direction of the saxophones, so we must assume that the reminder was effective, however uncalled for it may have been.
She was a sweet, beautiful girl.  Popular and talented, she participated in all the right activities, from Student Council to the National Honor Society and was always in the running for the popularity contests.  Still, she remained just Dorothy to everyone who knew her.  She was never anything different than that (as least, not as far as I knew).
Sweet and beautiful.
It’s how I remember her.  But still the question hangs in the air.
“Where’s Dorothy?”
Three years ago, Dorothy succumbed to breast cancer and left this world for a better place.  Then there was Becky.  And Derek.  And Bill.  And Susie.  And…
The list goes on. 
Can I let you in on a little secret?  There is somethingthat I wonder.  It’s something we don’t talk about much.  I think we all think about it, but just don’t know how to say the words without sounding morbid.
My name isn’t on the list.  I wonder why, sometimes. 
Why herWhy himWhy not me?
The Ancient Mariner, by Gustave Dore’
I read tonight, perhaps by coincidence and perhaps not, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.  It is not light reading, certainly not my usual fare, but what was I to do?  The Internet was down and the book of poetry close at hand.
As I read, a chance phrase caught my eye and held my thoughts, again in open rebellion to my will, but that seems to be the manner of my thoughts these days.  The mariner who is narrating the tale has told of his shipmates who all died in an eerie manner.  Oddly enough, he alone, who is the cause of all their trouble, is spared. 
His next words hit home for me as I consider those I know who are gone from this so-called vale of tears.
“The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie:
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.”
The mariner equates himself with the slimy things which existed in the horrible world he had described.   They are themselves a horror in his mind and yet, they remain alongside him after every one of his friends are dead. 
He must be horrible, too.  They were all beautiful people and he was a complete failure as a human being, a colossal foul-up.  But, here he is—alive.  They—they are all dead.
Why them?  Why not him?
It is a mercy to know that I am not the only one.  Mr. Samuel Coleridge, who lived a couple hundred years ago, understood my rebellious thoughts, at least.
Ah, but you understand them too, don’t you?

I don’t have to go back two hundred years to find kindred spirits.  We all wonder what our Creator sees in us–at least at some point in our lives we do.  I’m convinced we’ll never understand that.  How He could care about the slimy thing that I know myself to be–deep down?  That I don’t get.

And, perhaps that’s the way it should be.  God’s grace reaches to us, regardless of merit.  If it had to do with our beauty or sweetness or virtue, it wouldn’t be grace would it?
Another friend wrote today of suffering and the lessons to be learned from it.  She even spoke of death and its inevitability.  I wish she were wrong.  She is not.
My friends are gone.  Many of yours are too, no doubt.  We are left here to cope and learn from their lives and from their deaths.
We are left…to work…to live…to love
We don’t do that alone, either.  The lengthy poem referenced above ends with a reminder of that sweetness that we call fellowship,  as we who remain seek the face of God together. 
It’s a good place to start.
“…For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.”
(from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner ~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge ~ English poet ~ 1772-1834)
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.  And, let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
(Hebrews 12:1 ~ NIV)

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

“Oh, the weather outside is frightful…”

Those aren’t just song lyrics.  The whining, whistling wind of a winter storm blew past my ears as I ran my accustomed route yesterday evening, signaling a brief hiatus to my fitness program.  And, this morning, the cold monster up above began to slobber and drool, releasing ice and sleet to cover the ground and trees, as well as the roads.

When the tiny humans on the ground insisted upon continuing their activities, nearly unfazed (except for the temporary insanity of removing all the bread and milk they could carry from the grocery store shelves), the petulant storm shook its wintry head in frustration and covered the world below in a layer of white dandruff several inches deep.

We are sitting tonight, the Lovely Lady and I, by the fire, reminiscing about winters gone by.  Sledding and inner tubing, making doughnuts in empty parking lots with the old ’76 Chevy Nova, and even a ride or two on the upside down car hood being towed behind a friend’s old Ford pickup truck–all of these are wonderful memories from the past.

We’re staying by the fire, though.

It seems that the season of life when we need to make memories out in the cold, hard world has faded into the season of life when we enjoy said memories from the comfort of our little den.  I’m not worried one little bit about frostbite.  Even so, the memory makes me shiver from the cold.

It was the winter of my twenty-first year on this planet.  Winter was a relatively new sensation to me, having spent the first nineteen of them in the heat of the tropics.  The invitation to make a few trips to the top of a nearby hill seemed innocent enough.

Go down fast–climb up slowly–repeat.  What could go wrong?

We had no sleds, but sheets of thick plastic and huge pieces of cardboard from appliance boxes served to get us down the hill time and time again.  Then another twenty-something friend appeared with a huge inner tube from a semi-truck tire.  Wow!  This had promise!

The guys thought it would be fun to pile four and five deep onto the huge black doughnut and slide down the hill, and we did just that.  Two or three trips down the hill with just one or two of us rolling off on the way down convinced the young ladies who were there that it wasn’t dangerous at all.  The next thing we knew, there were three couples atop the bouncy homemade toboggan in a mass of laughing, teasing humanity.

At the top of the hill, the inner tube stuck tight, refusing to move until a couple of nearby onlookers were recruited to give it a push.  Slowly, the massive rubber craft began its descent over the well-worn track leading to the bottom of the hill and another routine trudge back up.  Only, along the way we got off the track.  Perhaps we had loaded one side more than the other, but regardless, the tube drifted rapidly in what appeared to be a collision course with a tree near the end of the slope.  Ready to roll off, and realizing that we were picking up speed quickly, we managed to steer the whole ungainly affair to the right of the big tree and we breathed a sigh of relief.

Too soon!  As we passed the tree we found, to our surprise and lasting discomfort, that there was a protruding root stretched out under the snow.  The resulting ramp which the packed snow formed launched the inner tube and all of its passengers high up into the air at a tremendous speed.  Our laughing ceased instantly as we found ourselves propelled through the air on the way to a certain impact on the snow below.

I won’t bother to describe the carnage.  I think most of us forewent the return trip up the hill at that point, electing instead to head for home and hot showers.  No one required a trip to the emergency room, but to this day, the Lovely Lady feels the effect of that one trip down the snow-covered hillside.

No.  We’ll stay in and enjoy the wintry weather in the comfort of a warm house.  Our advanced years and an episode or two like the one just described have taken away our need to experience the thrill and chill of the fresh snowfall firsthand.

Will you allow just one moral lesson from this little trip down the hills in my memory tonight?

It hadn’t been too many months before that wintry night when the Lovely Young Lady’s mother had stopped us at the front door as we headed out for a date one evening.  Her words seemed strange to me, but her intent was clear.  She was concerned, as most loving parents are, that lines might be crossed which couldn’t be retreated from and she wanted to make her meaning plain.

“You know, a toboggan starts really slowly down the hill, but once it picks up speed, it is nearly impossible to stop.”  She was actually embarrassed to say the words, but she didn’t want to wait until it was too late.

We got the point.

The lesson is true in many more ways than the application to youthful lusts which have led multitudes down disastrous paths.  I have seen innumerable ways in which it may be applied to daily life, even as I have matured.

No one gets over their heads in debt all at once, it seems.  Slowly it begins, a dollar here, ten there, and finally, hundreds and thousands of dollars later financial ruin awaits at the bottom of the hill.

The married woman accepts the invitation to coffee from the company hunk, thinking to herself, “It’s only coffee…”  The sled moves only inches, but it moves.

The businessman makes a sale of a few hundred dollars and pockets the cash, keeping it off the books.  The IRS audit awaiting down below seems so far away.

Hmmm…it seems that the toboggan principle applies to my writing also.  One moral truth has almost become a full trip down the hill to a sermon.

It may be time to roll off of this sled.

I could almost like winter from the vantage point I’ve got tonight.

Beautiful, isn’t it?

“…but the fire is so delightful.”

“I must cool myself and think.  For, it is easier to shout stop! than to do it.”
(Treebeard in The Two Towers ~ J.R.R. Tolkien ~ English novelist/educator ~ 1892-1973)

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
(Lao Tzu ~ Ancient Chinese philosopher ~ 604 BC-531 BC)

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

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Young Men’s Dreams

The wise words come from young men’s mouths.  Sometimes it takes an old man’s vantage point to put them into perspective.  Sometimes, the words move this old man to a different vantage point.

My young friend, the rocker, sat near me today, and we spoke of dreams, and of rules, and of generations.  I like to tell my peer group that I enjoy sharing my wisdom with the youngsters, but in reality I am collecting their insights, their brilliance, for my own benefit.  Today, after the door closed behind the rocker, I sat for a moment and thought back.

Twenty-one years old–hmmmm.

At twenty-one, I arrogantly called an older man wishy-washy, because he admitted that he wasn’t sure a verse in the Bible meant what it clearly (to me, at least) stated.

At twenty-one, I sat in a music store much like mine and lectured the store owner.  “You need to keep this place neater.  Customers don’t like to see the clutter.” (I hear my own customers laughing right out loud as they read this!) I was insufferable, and hardly even took note of the frustration on the older shop keeper’s face.

At twenty-one, I married the love of my life, with not a plan in my head, not even a dream in my heart.  I only knew I loved her and wanted to raise a family with her.  I wish there had been some loftier goal, some grand plan to be lived out.

There wasn’t.

Work.  Play.  Love.


Today, the rocker talked of dreams.  He spoke with a passion that I have only felt lately.  “I know that there is something…”  He stops and smiles, almost apologetically.  “I’m not sure what it is, and I haven’t found it yet, but there is still something for me to do.”

He need not apologize to me!  I understand perfectly.  I have felt it too.

It’s just that I didn’t feel it until thirty years on from where he is sitting today.

We used to laugh at those who felt like they needed time to find themselves as we went on to lose ourselves in our work, our possessions, and our social clubs.

I, for one, am finally enjoying the hunt for who I was really intended to be.  Oh, I won’t be leaving behind any of the important players who have entered the stage at different points in my little drama–the Lovely Lady, my children, my friends.  They have all gone into the mix of making me who I am today.  It is partially for them that I want to keep looking for that something, to keep growing into the man my Creator intended for me to be.

That said, we all change throughout our lives.  Another fellow traveler said it to me today as she went out my door.  “When we quit changing, we begin to die.”

I’m not sure if die is the word I would use, but we certainly lose the ability to influence the world around us if we refuse to move into a place where we can exert any persuasive guidance.

I wonder how many of us have actually found out what the something is that we are looking for.  Does it remain elusive and mysterious for everyone else, too?  Perhaps that’s how it is supposed to be.

I keep looking for a mention of the something in the Bible.  Perhaps I just missed it in all those years I was growing up in Sunday School, or even studying to lead a class or to preach a sermon.

Surely there may be just one passage that says, “And you shall find that something when thou hast come into the stature of a man.”

Has someone seen that verse?


I’ll keep looking.

And while I’m at it, I’m going to encourage my friend, the rocker, to keep looking for his something.  He knows that he needs to keep building the foundation while he’s looking.

When he finds it, I want to be there cheering him on.

I’ll do the same for you, too, you know.

“I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, and I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, and in short, I was afraid.”
(from The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock & Other Poems ~ T S Elliot ~ American essayist ~ 1888-1965)

“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.”
(Proverbs 25:2 ~ NIV)

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

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More Please

The self-employed young father checked his bank account one more time.

Still no different than it had been for the last two months.  Not enough.  Not enough for the bills which were beginning to pile up in the basket on his desk–Not enough for the plans he had for his struggling business–Not even enough for new school clothes for the kids.  It was time for Plan B.

Plan B?  There was no Plan B.

He took another job.  Weekends.  He worked as a security guard at the local manufacturing plant.  Don’t be fooled by the title.  He was a greeter.  Yep.  Like the folks who used to meet you at the front door of your local discount store.

“Hey.  How are you today?  Have a great shift!”

After the three hundred fiftieth time in an hour, he was over it.  He asked his supervisor if there was something else he could do to make the twenty hours he was to work each weekend pass more quickly.

“Sure,”  the answer came immediately.  “You see that stack of work orders over there?  You can transcribe them to computer files.”

That job was dispensed with quickly and the young man was back for more.  Anything was better than waiting for the shift change and waving at people who walked by.  His next request netted him the additional task of rendering the materials inventory list from the old paper forms to the computer system.  When he was done with that, he had some suggestions for the IT guy about improving the program the company was using for these vital data lists.

The next weekend, he blew through the two tasks so quickly that he added the task of transcribing personnel progress reports to the burgeoning schedule of chores to be completed each weekend.  He was never bored.

Then he noticed something.  Notes were being left for him.

“Could you do…?”

“It would be nice if you would find the time to…”

“We really need to have this done by Monday.”

After a couple of months of increasing responsibilities which were completed each week, he opened his paycheck envelope one afternoon and it hit him.  His paycheck was still written for exactly the same amount it had been the first week.  He remembered his job the first day.

“Hey.  How are you today?  Have a great shift!”

It paid the same amount.

The next week, the stacks of paper reports remained piled against the wall.  The young man had brought a couple of novels with him, along with a CD player and ten hours worth of music.  The keyboard to the computer sat idle, as he did the same.  He wondered if they would notice.  They did.

“Were you not feeling well last weekend?  The work is really piling up.”  His supervisor seemed genuinely concerned.

“No.  I felt fine.  I just realized that my job doesn’t require me to do those things.  I’ll do them again if I decide to.  I’ll probably just sit here at my desk today, like you told me to when I first started.”

The storm wasn’t long in erupting.  “You’ll do no such thing!  I’d better see some progress on those reports when I come back in on Monday!  Sit at your desk!  Ha!  We’re not paying you to goof off here!”

He did the reports.  At least he wasn’t bored.

Photo: Meaghang


I thought today about a little book which was popular around the turn of this century.  It was written about a prayer in the Bible by a man named Jabez.  The man prayed that his territory would be enlarged.  God granted his request and gave him more.  The author of the book had some thoughts on how the prayer could be effective for us today.

By the millions, people bought the little book.  By the millions, they also bought into the idea that by praying this same prayer each day they could have more.  More money, more possessions, more power–you name it, they wanted it and demanded it.

I am wondering if the prayer was answered for many of them.  I wonder if they also learned what the young man did as he attempted to avoid boredom.

With additional blessings come added expectations of the one being blessed

The Bible says it this way:  “To whom much is given, much is required.”

Some days, I think that I may have asked for too much myself.  I almost wish that my territory wasn’t so large.  Just last week, I actually heard myself say the words out loud:

“Stop the merry-go-round.  I want off!”

How about it?  Any possibility that anyone else out there is feeling the same way?

Perhaps, as the red-headed lady who raised me used to say, you too have found that your eyes were bigger than your stomach.  She would say that when I put too large a quantity of a favorite food on my plate, thinking that I wanted all of it, only to find that there was no capacity for that amount in the place it needed to go.  The rule at our table was that you had to eat everything you put on your plate.  There were times when I hated that rule.

In recent days I’m working at putting a smaller portion on my plate–both at the dinner table and in the taking on of new responsibilities.  I want to do everything I can, but I also have to know my limits.

I’m still exploring the stretching capacity in some areas, but drawing in the fence rows in others.  You see, the grass isn’t all that much greener on the other side of that fence, after all.

No praying the prayer of Jabez blindly again and again for me.  I think I like the words of the Apostle in the New Testament a little better.

I’m learning wherever I am that I can be content.

What’s that?  More mashed potatoes?

No thanks.  I’ve had enough.

“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.”
(Socrates ~ Greek philosopher ~ 469 BC-399 BC)

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

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