The seven year old in front of me stared at me, open-mouthed.

“No! I don’t look like my Dad.  I’m not bald!”

The lad’s mom stopped by to pick up a few music accessories.  I couldn’t help it.  The young boy stood there playing with his Nintendo (“It’s a DS.  Don’t you have one?”), and I looked down at his winsome face, wearing his new glasses and concentrating on beating his current level, and I saw his father.

“Did anyone ever tell you how much you look like your Dad?”

The shock was genuine.  He couldn’t believe how naive this old person was.  Couldn’t I see that he had all his hair?

How could he look like his dad if he had all his hair?

The more he looked at me with that surprised look on his face, the more he looked like his father.  I started to explain, but he was already back to his game, oblivious to my confusion.

That’s funny.  I don’t remember his dad being bald.

Is he?

How is it that the young man and I see such different things when we look at his dad?

I see a mischievous twinkle in his eye and a quick smile, partially what I noticed in the boy’s face today.

He sees a head without hair on top and sides shaved to match.

We’re both right.

We’re both wrong.

At least, we are if we think what we see is the whole picture.  The danger of focusing on one attribute of a person is that we almost always pigeon-hole him into a certain category–a category which cannot ever fully describe the person.

We see what we want and no more.

Tunnel vision.

There is none so blind as he who will not see.

I mentioned a shared acquaintance to a customer the other day.  I wanted to talk about musical talent.  He wanted to talk about ancient history.

“Why would you even have anything to do with that tweaker?” (A tweaker is the common description for one who is addicted to methamphetamine.)

I stopped short.  It took a moment.  Then, the light dawned.  I do remember a time when there were rumors that the man used drugs.

I thought carefully about my answer.  “He described himself to me with different words.  His words were believer and follower of Jesus.  He talks about grace, too.”

My friend hemmed and hawed a little, but he kept coming back to the drug issue.  It was all he could see when he looked at the other man.

Tunnel vision is a kind of blindness.

There is none so blind . . .

There is a man I know who has led an exemplary life, his complete life given to service and ministry.  Well, almost complete.  A few years ago, I learned about a moral failing in his life.  I was disappointed.

Still today, when his name comes up, I can’t think of anything but the morality issue.  Seven decades of his life are as if they never happened.  One sin, one failure, defines him in my mind, and it will forever.  Or, so it seems to me.

Am I so different than my customer with the long memory?

Tunnel vision is blindness.

There is none . . .

I hear the pharisees–those hypocrites–whispering already, their voices repeating the mantra again and again, until it is all they know.

Guilty in one part, guilty in all.  There can be no argument.  It is in the Book.

Once used drugs? It’s who he is forever. Tweaker!

Served faithfully for a lifetime, but stumbled at the end?  All of his life is erased and the label of adulterer replaces the title of servant.

Suddenly, a new label jumps to mind–one which hangs about my own neck.

Pharisee–arrogant, boastful judge of others.  Not those hypocrites. 

MeThis hypocrite.

I wonder if I’m the only one?

No, I suppose not.

I know of at least one customer and one young man who share my problem (although we could probably overlook the boy’s error).  There may be one or two more who will read these words and hear in them a familiar note.

I wonder though…

Suddenly–as suddenly as that personal label, the one hanging around my own neck, came to me–the light shines brilliantly into the darkness I’ve created.

To label myself is no different than labeling others.  Good or bad, the label is applied to just one part, one tiny segment, of who the person is.

With our bad eyesight, we can never see the whole person.  Not without corrective lenses.  Or, better yet, not without surgery.

I’m struggling with the application of this truth tonight.  I want to pound home the lesson, but it hurts too much personally.

I do remember that there is One who sees the whole person–the secret parts, too–while we see only the obvious, public image.  I remember too, that He gave sight to the blind.

That’s me.  Blind.

I wonder if He’s still any good at restoring sight.

Can I leave you to find your way to the end of this subject yourself?

You see, it would only be a blind man leading blind people, so I think it’s only prudent.

We wouldn’t want to waste the evening in a ditch, would we?

“How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of ‘green’?”
(Stan Brakhage ~ American filmmaker ~ 1933-2003)

“Hear this, you foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear.”
(Jeremiah 5:20 ~ NIV)

 © Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved.

Mob Rule

I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.

The words are familiar to many.  So is the cynicism with which the words are often greeted.

That most famous of journal-keepers, Anne Frank, recorded those words at about the time she and her Jewish-German family were discovered and transported to Auschwitz, the infamous World War II concentration camp.  She would die there less than nine months later at the young age of fifteen.

Her words echo in my head tonight.  The optimistic syllables are set against a backdrop of gunfire and burning buildings, along with the sound of an angry mob.  One person started by throwing a brick at a police car, and within moments the car was destroyed and burning.

Color me cynical.

The mob will destroy and loot, and possibly kill, all because they follow their leaders.

Can any good come from the actions of a mob?

Last Saturday was just an ordinary Saturday morning at the music store.

Well no it wasn’t, actually.  I was exhausted.  And disgusted.

I had gotten up almost three hours early that morning to run in the local Turkey Trot 5K race, held every November.  A really late night spent standing at my work bench tending to instrument repairs for customers had shortened my usual five hours of sleep to less than four.

I hadn’t even won my age division in the race.  I had expected to do that, at least.  Some old guy I had never seen before walked off with my medal around his neck.

My medal!

I hadn’t won anything in the drawings that followed the race.  No turkey.  No free Subway sandwiches.  Not even a milk shake from Barnett’s Dairyette.

Besides that, it was pouring down rain outside by then.  That’s what it felt like inside, too.  Pouring down.

Nobody loves me.  Everybody hates me.  I’m going to the garden to eat worms.

The morning dragged on.  So did my mental meal of wriggly worms.  Ten o’clock was followed by eleven o’clock and then eleven-thirty finally slid on past.

I was (reluctantly) waiting on an old friend when my self-pity feast was brought to a screeching halt.  The nearly empty parking lot suddenly began to look different as, one by one, cars started pulling into the waiting spaces.  Smiling people got out of each car and, still shaking off the raindrops, walked in the front door.

One of them, a young man something over twenty years old, carried in a huge sign and a couple of glass jars. He set the jars on the counter in front of me, leaning the sign against its front.

“I need to just leave these here for awhile,” he said, through a grin the size of the Mississippi River.

I wondered, but I was working on a microphone stand for my friend/customer, so I turned back to the task at hand.  People continued piling into the store.

I finally looked up, wondering how the Lovely Lady and I were going to serve all these customers at once.  Suddenly, it hit me.

They each wore that Mississippi-sized grin on their face.  Something was up!

Two hours later, I was still stunned.  They all came for one thing.  Just one.  They wanted to give us money.

Give.  Us.  Money.

You have to understand.  I sell things.  Musical instruments.  Recordings.  Lesson books.

I sell things.  People trade their money for the things I sell.  Always.

Not on that afternoon.

These people had heard I wanted something.  Something big I couldn’t afford.  Well, at least, I couldn’t justify spending the kind of money it would take to get it.

A few weeks ago, I purchased a guitar from a customer.  Thirty-seven years before that, he had walked out the door of this same music store with that very guitar.  That was only a month after I started working in this store.  I felt a strange connection to the beautiful, ruby-red gem.

As I negotiated to purchase the instrument, he shared a bit of information which told me that this was actually one of the first guitars ever sold by this second generation family-owned store.  My Father-in-law had sold this guitar as one of his first ever transactions after launching the business in 1968!

I was in love.  The beautiful guitar, originally sold for less than five hundred dollars in 1968, would cost me thousands of dollars to acquire, but I had to have it.  After a couple sessions of dickering and bargaining, the transaction was finalized.  The gorgeous thing hangs on the wall behind my sales counter.

I want it to stay there forever.  The problem is that I can’t afford to invest thousands in anything that is not for sale.  I don’t have that kind of money to spend on sentimentality.

My friends, on the other hand, did, it seems.   They had all gathered for one reason.  They wanted to buy the guitar.  For me and the Lovely Lady.  To keep forever.

By the time I had shaken the last hand and hugged the last neck, there was almost two thousand dollars in the jars on that counter.  To say that I am humbled and grateful is less than an understatement.  I am still stunned.

But, the guitar stays.

It stays.

I’m imagining the looks of confusion on the faces of those reading this.  By now, the reader undoubtedly wants to know what the story of the guitar has to do with my opening statement.

I suppose a little perspective might be in order.  I’ll do my best.

My friends had a name for what they did for me on Saturday.  The name was written in big green letters on the sign the young man had leaned against my counter.

Cash Mob.

That’s right.  A mob.  A group of people that feeds off the example of others around them and follows their lead.

I asked the question earlier.  I ask it again.

Can any good come from the actions of a mob?

I’m still a cynic.  But, on Saturday at least, a day that started out wrong turned out right.

I’m also remembering another mob that gathered one night.  It was over two thousand years ago.  A Man died because of that mob.  The course of history was changed because of it.

Could any good come from that?

The answer speaks for itself.  Only the greatest good mankind has ever encountered.  Only the opportunity for us to experience what could never have happened without the actions of that unruly and vicious mob.  In the strangest manner and from the worst circumstances–Grace and Life!

I don’t see the end of the actions of tonight’s mob.  I honestly don’t see how it can come to any positive conclusion.

Perhaps, I’m not the right person to ask about it.

Are you talking to the right Expert on mobs?

I’ve got a few questions I’m going to be asking Him tonight.

You too?

“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
(Genesis 50:20 ~ NIV)

“It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical.  Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.
It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering, and death.  I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness; I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too; I feel the suffering of millions.  And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better; that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”
(The Diary of Anne Frank, entry July 15, 1944 ~ Anne Frank ~ German Jew/Nazi victim ~ 1929-1945)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved.

Afternoon Follows Morning

“I’ve had that guitar for fifteen years.  Put it together with my own hands.  I’m really going to miss it.  But today is her birthday.  It’s time for it to go.”

I didn’t want his guitar.  It was a cheap instrument when he rescued it from the dumpster fifteen years ago.  He had glued the back on badly, so badly the edges hung over the sides instead of meeting them smoothly.  It should have had low-tension nylon strings running up the fingerboard to the headstock, but the bronze strings he was trying to bring into tune were already warping the neck.  The bridge…

Oh.  You get the picture.  I didn’t want his guitar.

Yet, there he stood, head cocked to the side expectantly.  He needed money to buy his wife a present.  He knows me.  He was sure cash would appear in my hands very soon.

He was right.

But, not for the reason you might think.  I’m not some nice guy.  I’m not a saint who can’t stand to see people down on their luck.  I’m certainly not a philanthropist who looks for folks to whom I can give a hand-out.


Yesterday, I would have shoved that guitar case back at him and told him I had no need for it.  I’ve done that several times recently.

I’m getting good at saying no.  Sometimes it almost feels good to grit my teeth and turn away the opportunity to be generous.

You know what I mean, don’t you?

“This is mine.  You can’t have it!  I earned it the old-fashioned way.”

Not this afternoon, though.

Why?  Well–this morning happened before this afternoon.

This morning, my other down-and-out friend came in, selling his guitar.  If you could call it that.  Guitar-shaped-object would be closer to the truth.  You see, he too is a dumpster diver.  Has been for years.  I’ve been the recipient of a number of his finds, as has the local recycling center.  He likes me better because I don’t make him give me a fingerprint every time he sells me something.

On this day, I turned him down.  Flat.  I didn’t want that awful instrument in my store.  I was polite, but firm.  He shrugged and turned away momentarily.  Then something stopped him.

Another customer was playing one of the guitars up toward the front of the store.  He was good.  Really good.  The strong chords and beautiful melody hung in the air, almost seeming to breathe fresh air into the atmosphere, previously sullied by the stench of the old fellow’s ragged clothes and unwashed body.  It was as if something had taken him by the arm and held him in place.

The filthy old man (he’s a year older than I am, but looks to be ten years my senior) stood stock still for a moment, and a sigh escaped his lungs.  Then, he moved the few steps back in front of where I still waited behind the counter, and he rested his soil-blackened hands, nail fungus and all, on the glass before me.

“I used to play like that.  Was even going to Nashville once.  I’m on the You-tubes, you know.”

His story spilled out.  Famous people who used to play with him, promotional posters in taverns, sponsors in the business community, cirrhosis of the liver, contracts from record companies.  It was disjointed and incredible.  No really–incredible, meaning not believable.

Well, except for the taverns and cirrhosis part.

You think I listened to his story and gave him money, don’t you?  You think the old softie gave in and purchased that awful guitar.

I didn’t.  I wanted nothing more than to get that stench out of my store.  I wanted–I wanted him to go away so I could sell a guitar to a real customer before he walked out.

It sounds so awful when I see it written in black and white.

The man playing guitar started to return the instrument to the hanger on the wall.  Well, there you go!  He couldn’t stand the smell anymore and would leave.  My fears were coming to fruition.  I would be left with the old junkman and the real person would walk out the door.

Suddenly, I heard a voice begging the guitarist to stay.  “Play some more.  Don’t stop.”

It wasn’t my voice, but that of the man across the counter.  He walked up to where the musician was taking another guitar down from the rack and he sat down beside him.  Beside him!

All I could think of was the filth and the stench, and my poor customer.  I needn’t have worried.

They sat, one playing the guitar, the other telling his cockamamie story once again, with embellishments.  At one point, the story-teller pulled down a different guitar and attempted to play a chord or two, but he wasn’t up to the task.

I was waiting for the guitar player to flee.  I was sure he’d never darken the door of my store again.  How much worse could it get for him?

Then I heard him ask the old fellow if he wanted to come play with him sometime.  Really?  Had I heard that right?

Even stranger, the guitarist suggested he would give the old guy his name and phone number so he could contact him.  I was even more surprised.  Why would a man do that?

The old junkman stood up to leave and his new friend put his hand out to shake his filthy one.  He even reached over and put his arm around the old guy’s shoulder and reminded him to call him when he got a chance.  He touched him!

I stood there ashamed.  Ashamed.

I sit here and still, I  feel it.

But this afternoon–when I had another opportunity–I rose to the occasion.

I hope I will again tomorrow.

And the day after that.

“Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.”
(Albert Schweitzer ~ German theologian/medical missionary ~ 1875-1965)

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'”
(Matthew 25:40 ~ NIV)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved.

Fit Us For…

“What are you training for?”

The middle-aged man leaned forward on the bench he occupied beside the running track.  I had just finished running my three miles and was stretching against the wall nearby.  For the last two and a half miles, he had been in the same spot on that bench every time I ran past.  Twenty-five times, I ran in front of him and he hadn’t moved from the spot.  In fairness, his attention was on his son, also running laps and a few wind sprints.  It turned out he had noticed me going past him all those times, too.

As I considered the answer to his question, a few drops of sweat fell from my face to the floor below.  I laughed nervously, hoping he wouldn’t notice–it is hard to act suave and cool when you’ve just run thirty times around the track as fast as your legs can manage.  As if a little sweat mattered.  Still, I quickly passed my sleeve over my forehead, forestalling any other droplets with the same destination in mind.

What am I training for?

The easy answer is that I want to run in the annual Turkey Trot 5K race coming up this weekend.  But, come to think of it, that’s not why I’m running tonight.

It’s not why I ran a couple of nights ago.  Nor, why I ran the night before that.

I would run if there weren’t a race for another six months–or a year.  I’m not training for some trivial little five-kilometer run along the city streets.

I took the plunge and attempted an explanation.

“I’m training for the rest of my life.”


Let’s see what my new friend had to say about that.  It was as close to the truth as any answer I had, anyway.

“Oh.  One of those.”  He sighed.  “You’re a health fanatic, aren’t you?”

I’m not!  I won’t be known as a health nut!

Anyway.  We batted the details of my fanaticism around for a few moments and I took my leave, walking my sweat-infused body out into the twenty degree wintry night.  I almost didn’t notice the chill, so wrapped up was I in the argument which was brewing inside of me.

Well?  What am I training for?  Come to think of it, what is he training for?

What are we training for?

He sits on the bench and watches other people run.  He’s training for something–not the same thing I’m training for, but he’s training for something. 

The implications of the thought are staggering to me.  Every moment, every second, I am in training.  Every step I take, every bite of food I put into my mouth, every minute I spend in bed–all of it training.

For good or bad, we are all training.

And no, this is not the fanatical voice of a health nut you are hearing.

I said the implications were staggering.  They still are.  The realization that I’m training physically with every move I make suddenly broadens to include all of life.

All of life.

Physical.  Emotional.  Spiritual.

When I snap at the Lovely Lady because I am unhappy with the way things are going,  I’m training.  When I ignore that man who needed me to notice his contribution to our conversation, I’m training.  Even when no one else is looking and I sneak a glance at that scantily clad woman on my computer screen, I’m in training.

Oh.  Is that more information than you wanted?  You didn’t need to know that about me?  Sorry.  It is part of what I’ve been training for, though.  All of my life.  You too?  Maybe not the exact same thing, but there is that one issue…

What are we training for?

I train physically nearly every day because I want to be in condition every day.  Not just on race day.

Every day.  For the rest of my life.

I’m suggesting that we need to train spiritually for every day.  Not just so that, like the old Christmas carol requests, Jesus will “…fit us for Heaven, to live with (Him) there.”

Every day, we need to be ready–to act, to speak, to think–as if we were already fit for heaven.

Right here.  Right now. 

What are you training for?

Is there any sweat dripping from your face?  Are you feeling a little out of place with the spectators sitting around, staying cool and fresh?

Good.  It’s a start anyway.

They’ll call us fanatics.  Maybe even nuts.

Perhaps that much will be true.

Tomorrow is race day.  And the day after that.  And the day after…

Time to get fit.

“A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart.  For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”
(Luke 6:45 ~ NIV)

“…when I train in the gym now, I am not training to be strong or handsome–just better than I was yesterday.”
(Jean-Claude Van Damme ~ Belgian actor)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved.


It happened again just the other night.  I awoke and stared into the half dark room, trying to shake the uneasiness that gripped me.  Beside me on the bed, her covers thrown off to the side, the Lovely Lady mumbled a half-distinguishable question and rolled back over into the embrace of a deep sleep.

“You okay?”  I think those were the two words she put into the sentence.

“Fine,” I replied untruthfully.

I looked toward the bedside table, where the garish red light from the bright LEDs of the clock/radio let me know that it had only been half an hour since my head had hit the pillow.  Thirty minutes of sleep. 

It was earlier that same night that I wrote last, my memories of a day spent in the caves at a nearby state park leading me to some nearly-profound thoughts.  Shortly after writing, I had headed to bed, with the rain falling and thunder gently rumbling above my head.

Exhaustion may have allowed me to drop off to sleep immediately, but my old memories couldn’t be quieted that easily.  As I slept, the little imp of fear crept round and round in my head, looking for a piece of fertile soil into which he could plant his deadly seed.  Seemingly, he had found an appropriate plot.

Within minutes, my slumber was troubled by visions of dark places, much darker than the bedroom in which I lay.  I felt the space around me shrink as, in my dreams, I moved deeper into the darkness.  It mattered little that I knew myself to be in a queen-size bed with only one other person; there was hardly enough space to move my arms.

I wouldn’t call it a nightmare.  There were no unknown terrors in the darkness behind or before me.  I had no fear of falling, or no worry about shadowy men with guns.  No, it was just that the uneasiness grew as the darkness in my head increased. The spacious bedroom I knew myself to be in became a claustrophobia inducing tunnel that I had to either escape from or lie in until I died.

I stirred; she spoke. Still, I couldn’t shake the all too real dream from my mind.

The rest of the night went by in half-sleep and half-dreams of long dark tunnels that must be traversed.  I had no idea what the penalty for failure might be.  I only knew the task must be completed or a price would be paid. 

I knew it was only a dream.  I knew it.  That didn’t lessen its reality in my mind.

After my alarm clock went off, I spent most of the morning, only half-awake but functioning, in thought about the darkness and the tunnel. In reality, it didn’t take long for the filing system in my head, chaotic though it may be, to pinpoint the memory.

It would take longer to understand the lesson I needed to learn.

I told a friend at church the other day that it’s not always fun living inside my head.  I said it jokingly but, as has been said, many a truth is spoken in jest.  It is a strange place to be.  Inside my head, I mean.

Well?  How else to describe a dream induced by a nearly half-century old memory?  I was only seven or eight.

My brothers and I, along with a couple of neighborhood boys, had spent the morning fishing at the local fishing hole.  In that hot, dry southern Texas town, the countryside was crisscrossed by drainage ditches and irrigation canals.  One of those drainage ditches was where we always threw our hooks into the murky water, hoping for a perch or two to take the bait we offered.

We had our fill of fishing for the day, but not being ready to head for home and chores, were playing in an orange grove nearby.  The groves utilized a different method for watering than did most of the local vegetable fields.  They had standpipes every couple hundred feet along the outside boundary of the groves, connected together by concrete pipes underground.  When the water was flowing, it would rush along the underground pipeline, bubbling up out of the standpipes to flood the parched ground around the feet of the citrus trees, lending them the life-giving moisture that was so rare in that hot, arid land.

One could climb down into the standpipe and see through the underground tunnel to the next pipe.  There was a long, dark stretch, but clearly the bright light on up ahead indicated the place where the sun illuminated the bottom of the standpipe intersecting with the underground irrigation system.

On most days, these pipes stood bone dry.  That day was just such a day.  I stuck my head down into the pipe, about two feet in diameter, and shouted down to a brother, whose head appeared in my line of sight at the next standpipe.

“Hey!  I could go from here to there underground, couldn’t I?”

It wasn’t meant to be a serious idea–just an observation.  It got serious very quickly.

Three words.  No more.

How was I to know that those three words would cause me a sleepless night nearly fifty years hence?

“I dare you!”

The neighborhood boys stood in disbelief as I nearly jumped into the standpipe.  I hollered out to my brother, unseen in the darkness ahead of me.

“You make sure to watch and warn me if anyone comes!  I don’t want them turning on the water while I’m down here!”

He kept talking to me through the pipe.  For a little while.  It was comforting, especially since, after leaving the bright circle of sunlight below the pipe through which I had descended, it was growing steadily darker.

I hadn’t considered that.  It got really dark.  Darker even than most nights I had been outside.  Was it really supposed to be this dark?

I tried to look ahead to where the disembodied voice of my brother droned on.  Another brother was there too, along with the other boys now.  I could hear them, but couldn’t see any sign of them.

The darkness was complete.

My attempt to look ahead was a flop.  My body filled the pipe.  I had opted to lie on my back, since I knew there would be no room to crawl and I would have to slide using my elbows and heels to shove me along.  I tried turning my head sideways, but only succeeded in banging the back of my skull against the concrete pipe.

It seemed to take an eternity to move through the deep darkness that surrounded me.  It got a lot worse when my brother and his cronies fell silent.  No sound came from the space ahead of me at all.

“Hey!  Anybody there?”  I screamed the words and regretted it immediately as the sound echoed and hurt my eardrums.

No answer.  I was on my own.

I shoved ahead as quickly as I could.  The eternity stretched out and I stopped more often to rest.  Every muscle in my body hurt.  Boys weren’t made to slither through irrigation pipes underground.

Memory, perhaps, makes the journey longer than it was on that day.  It may also be that unpleasant dreams of the event make the way darker over the years.  I do know that I survived.  No water was released to rush down the pipe and suffocate me.  I didn’t get stuck mid-trip and have to be rescued by firemen and paramedics.

The eternity in the darkness ended, much as it had begun, as by degrees, the air around me became lighter and lighter until I was looking directly up into the sunny blue sky.  My view of the sky was framed by the grinning faces of four or five boys, all of whom I thought I hated at that moment.  The hatred passed quickly, as relief and joy took its place.

Is there any feeling better than that of sudden freedom?  Does any joy rival that of breathing fresh air and seeing the light of day when one despaired of ever doing either again?

I remember it as if it were last night.

But, alas, I still remember the darkness, too.

I’m sitting at my desk and remembering the foolishness of a boy who was stupid enough to clamber out of the light of day into a dark, dangerous tunnel in which he might have died.

On a dare.

My thoughts drift for a moment and I hear young voices singing the words.  It was the favorite song of one of my Sunday School teachers.  Mrs. Olsen had taught us about a young man named Daniel who refused to to be moved from his purpose, who refused to give in and who was thrown into the underground darkness of a lions cave–alone–because he dared.

Dare to be a Daniel.
Dare to stand alone.
Dare to have a purpose firm.
Dare to make it known.

There are some dares worth taking.  There are some dark tunnels we need to traverse.

Some dangers must be braved.


I’m still learning lessons I should have learned fifty years ago.

I hope some who read this will be quicker on the uptake than I have been.

I wonder.  Are you ready to face the test?

Think you can take the plunge underground?

I dare you!


“The king said to Daniel, ‘May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you!'”
(Daniel 6:16b ~ NIV)

“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.”
(Seneca the Younger ~ Roman philosopher ~ 4BC-65AD) 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved.

In a Tight Spot

I want the words back.

It has been twenty years since I said them.  The man sitting in front of me was a relative, one whom I hadn’t seen for twenty years before that.  We had, as seems to be the custom in many far-flung families, come together in the same place on that day to mourn the loss of a loved one.

I found in my cousin a kindred spirit.  After the funeral and the ensuing family dinner and socializing, all the other guests had gone to bed or left for other quarters.  He and I sat into the wee hours of the morning talking about nothing and everything.

He is a pastor.  I have a great love for God and for knowledge of Him.  After the lighter subjects had been exhausted, we spoke at length about our faith and then about the foundations of our faith.

We started out speaking in broad terms, our joy at finding common ground, where we had never considered it might exist, almost palpable.  The smiles on our faces as we shared our hearts mirrored the spirit within.

Eventually, the broad terms used up, we found the field of discussion narrowing, pinpointing individual doctrines and long-held beliefs.

I should have seen the danger.

Tighter and tighter grew the spaces in which we maneuvered, both intent on sharing our passions.  From the clean and straight foundations, we had made our way to the living quarters in which we dwelt, day in and day out, each of us sure in our direction and in the integrity of the building.

We had obviously gone to different schools of architecture.

His structural design began to feel at odds with mine; my rooms built too large with doors that opened at a touch.  I was cramped in the spaces he described, sensing that there might even be locks on some of the doors into the spaces, as well.

I said the words.  He didn’t.

I said them.

I grew uncomfortable with the picture I was seeing and I wanted to seem open-minded, but firm.  I made one statement and as a result, the house we had built together in that one glorious evening would soon be deserted, never to be inhabited again.

“There is only one thing that will keep me from fellowship with another believer.  If he or she believes…, I don’t see any way for us to walk together.”

It was the one thing I was sure would allow us to move into the next room, a room where we would leave behind our differences, our arguments, our petty dogmas.  I could see the room just ahead.  The welcome light from inside shone down the narrow hallway we were in.  In there, we would enjoy the splendor of being single-minded and in harmony once again.

The pain on his face was nearly instantaneous.

“Uh.  I believe that.  It is absolutely essential to my faith.”

We were done. I think I heard a door slam somewhere.

The narrowing passage led to a dead end, never to open up into another space of comfort and camaraderie.


The awkwardness of the silence which followed was profound.  He went to bed.  I went out to the motor home in which I was housed for that night.  I couldn’t sleep.

The next morning, he flew home.  We said goodbye without the slightest sign of the emotion the evening before had foreshadowed.  He promised to keep in touch.  I did the same.

Neither of us has.

My mind searches for the truth to be found in the event.  All I can see is a snapshot in my memory of a face peering through boulders at me.  It was on another day, even more years back.

To this day, the fear in the eyes is still enough to make me cringe.

We had taken a day trip to a nearby state park.  Devil’s Den, they call it.  I saw its beauty and wondered at the name.  The place was astounding.

All around, the Ozark mountains climb.  For miles, as we traveled toward the park, we rode along ridges and overlooked spectacular wooded valleys and limestone bluffs that fell away below us.  Then we began to go down, down, and down some more, winding along tortuous roadways into a valley that was, in a word, beautiful.

We wound our way along the river that dropped over a dam in a roaring waterfall of sound to the little lake below where swimmers cavorted in its coolness.  There were hiking trails that lead to amazing overlooks and placid meadows.

Then there were the caves.  Ah!

Now I remember why they call it Devil’s Den.

Our group of young men grabbed flashlights and headed up the trail that led to the caves.  Imagine.  All the beauty of the woods, hills, and noisy water around us, and we wanted to clamber underground, over and around fallen boulders in the dark.

In the dark.

It started out nicely, the yawning opening inviting all of us to head deep into the maw of the cavern.  We stood upright and just walked right in.  It wasn’t long though, before the walking became climbing, as the big boulders seemed to want to be right in our pathway.  We had to climb or turn back, and we weren’t about to go back.

Soon the climbing became crawling as the open cave turned into nothing more than a tunnel.  Fortunately, the tunnel eventually opened up into a place where we could stand, but within moments we were sliding through tight spots, the like of which I had never been in.

I remember coming home that night–we did get out–with the stitching worn off the pockets of my jeans where they had rubbed constantly against those tight rocks.  At one point, I found myself remembering that those caves had been formed by earth movement, and I wondered what would happen if the earth chose that exact moment to move again.  Not a reassuring thought.

Tight spots.

We got in and then we got out with each other’s help.  Still, I was never so relieved as when we saw the light of day shining into the mouth of the caverns in front of us.  We stood outside the entrance and counted off, to be sure everyone was out.

We weren’t.

Three guys had been left behind.  A friend and I were elected, perhaps we volunteered, to go back in and find them.  It didn’t take long.

As we called out in the dark, we saw a light shining through a crack, a very small crack, in the wall of the main cavern.  I will never forget the frightened face pressed up to the crack.  It was the face of a young man who was in a tight spot, one he feared he might never be rescued from.

He could see the big open room of the main cavern.  He could even reach his fingers through the crack in front of him and feel the moving air of the space.  What he couldn’t do was to move from his position, jammed in the small space of a side passage, into that room which was the embodiment of freedom, and life, and joy to him and the two other guys pressed in behind him.

The friend with me knew the caves better than I.  He had traversed them before and recognized the side passage the fellows were in.  Urging them to move away from the crack, he gave them clear instructions on how to get back on track and into the main cavern once more.

They moved away from the crack only reluctantly.  It was so close–so close–to safety and relief, yet they could not squeeze through the tight spot they had worked themselves into.  Still, they didn’t want to leave the spot when they could see their goal within reach.  But the guys finally did follow instructions and minutes later we heard them puffing and exclaiming about the hardship, but they were smiling sheepishly as they came into the big cavern, just feet away from where we had found them.

So close.  So far.

My mind shifts back to that other night twenty years ago.  That night when my cousin and I moved from the wide spot where we walked side by side and conversed, never realizing that the room was narrowing.  Then, before we knew it, it was too late.

Too late.  The tight spot my words put us in were supposed to be the way out.  They only drove us in deeper and we never found the path back.

So close.  So far.

I hear the questioning voices.  What of the important doctrine I spoke of?  Shouldn’t I have done exactly what I did and stood my ground?  Was is that important?

I have asked myself that question again and again.  I still believe the dogma of which I spoke.  It’s just that the years have shown me another truth.

When we disagree with others who are walking in the same faith as we are, it is not wise to make the way so narrow that no one else may pass.  Imperatives that leave no way out make it difficult (impossible even) for us to walk side by side and to learn from each other.  We are robbed of fellowship with fellow travelers who are as passionate as we to walk in truth.

The Apostle, for whom my parents had the audacity to name me, suggested that it was okay for his listeners to believe something other than what he taught.  He did add that he was sure God would show the objectors the truth, but he asks that they continue to live up to what had been attained.  Even if they couldn’t agree with him on that one point.

Freedom to find the truth.  As they walked beside him.

I still want the words back.

The tight spots in this world are plentiful enough.  There is no need for us to go building more, or even looking for those we needn’t travel.

I’m still making my way out of the devil’s den I stumbled into that night.

There are others in here too.  Their cries for help echo in my ears.

Maybe we can find the way out into the passageway together.

We might even share the light along the journey.

“We must hold onto the progress we have already made.”
(Philippians 3:16 ~ NLT)

“Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”
“And he has Brain.”
“Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.”
There was a long silence.
“I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”
(A.A. Milne ~ English author ~ 1882-1956)

Photo by Sam.  Used under Creative Commons license.

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2014. All Rights Reserved.