No Accidents

Exhausted.  Physically worn out.

In a minute, I’ll turn off the coffee pot and the lights.  As I check the door though, I see the glow of the candles in the windows next door and my mind wanders.

Candlelight . . . 

Earlier on this long Eve of Christmas day, we sat in a dimly lit church auditorium.  It’s not a beautiful sanctuary, just an old Quonset hut gymnasium finished out to seat a couple hundred people, but it’s warm.

Comfortably we sat, and then stood to sing as the familiar carols began.

It was no accident that he picked our building to wander into.  That homeless man could not have known who would be there; he could not have predicted his reception.  But in he walked.

There are no accidents.

We stood and sang.  He trudged right up the middle aisle.  You know, usually folks in his condition take a seat near the back, awaiting the chance to ask for help quietly.  This fellow?  Right up front.

No.  This was no accident.

The man set his plastic Walmart sack on the communion table.  In Remembrance of Me, the words cut into the wood declare to the onlookers.  Somehow, I think that’s no accident either.

There are not many items in our church building that we would call sacred.  It’s just not how we worship.  Altars, fonts, icons–those are not really part of our experience.  We believe that true worship is from our hearts, disregarding the physical trappings, almost to a fault.

The Communion table though–that’s the Lord’s table.  If not sacred, it is at least worthy of respect.

Dirty Walmart bags don’t scream out respect.

Sinking to his knees, the unhappy fellow bent himself down to the bare concrete floor and began to speak quietly.  I couldn’t hear the words and I still don’t know what he prayed, but soon, others would kneel beside him and pray as well.  They were still ministering to him as the rest of us left, nearly forty-five minutes later.

I need to say the words.

It was no accident that the man set his dirty Walmart bag on our Communion table.

I wonder.  How many of us who were there left unchanged tonight?

I’ve written on numerous occasions of homeless folks and our responsibility to them.  Their stories always pull at my heart, and I’ve attempted to communicate that same sense to the reader in my writing.

Tonight though, on the eve of our observance of the birth of Christ, a dirty man set his dirty sack right down in the middle of my worship.

Right down in the middle of it.

candle-1012936_1280But, as I stare over at the candles in the house’s windows, I begin to understand.

You see, it was no accident that the Baby was born to an unmarried young lady and laid in a feeding trough.

It was no accident that His companions throughout His life on earth were outcasts, and drunks, and the poor.

It was no accident that this Holy, perfect God-man was hung on a cursed, profane tree.

His intent was to show us that often what we define as profane is what He calls sacred.  For all of His time here, He made clear as well, that much of what the religious folk of that day called sacred was actually profane.

I wonder if there are similar words He would say to His Church today.

The Baby in the barn calls us to care about the sacred instead of focusing on the profane.

He calls us to speak grace instead of declaring law.  He calls us to offer mercy instead of dispensing justice.

He calls us to let the dirty Walmart bag sit atop the Lord’s Table.

In some ways, the bag is more sacred.  It is if it allows a seeker to find once more the Baby who came to be Savior.

Sacred.

The Savior came to offer grace.  More than that, He came to change who we are.

I know.  He’s still changing me.

And that’s no accident either.

 

 

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.
(Isaiah 9:2 ~ NIV)

 

Anything that happens to you, good or bad, must pass through His fingers first.  There are no accidents with God.
(Tony Evans ~ American pastor/author)

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Shadows

Winter Solstice.  

Here, in the northern hemisphere, it is the shortest day in the year.  Throughout the winter, because of the earth’s tilt on its axis, the sun is not visible in the sky overhead for as long each day.  Shorter days equals colder weather.  Theoretically.

On this shortest of the short days in this year, the wind is blowing a gale out of the south.  Rain, says the weatherman.  Tornadoes, others whisper ominously.  Listening, some will be afraid.  I shrug my shoulders.  What may come,  may come.

Or, it may not.

In my experience, mostly they don’t come.  Worry won’t change the odds, either way.

Funny.  It’s not the big things, the disasters, that cause me the most problems.

Shadows.  I worry about shadows.

I remember watching the shadows as a skinny little urchin under the heat of the South Texas sun.  Early in the morning, we rushed to beat the daylight to the fishing hole, trusty Zebco rod and reels slung over our shoulders.  We hoped to be fishing before our shadows could be cast across the feeding place of the perch we sought.  No doubt it was childish imagination, but we were positive the shadow would spook the fish, guaranteeing a morning devoid of the victorious shouts echoing along the banks:  I got one!

Then again, in the evening as we ambled toward home down the long avenue, our shadows would stretch for yards, as the sun dropped down to the western horizon.  Shadows meant the day was over.  That could only lead to one thing.  We were never ready to go to bed.  Never.

Ah, but in the middle of those wonderful, carefree days?  No shadow was cast by the sun at all.  High above us, the brilliant yellow sun was all light.  We moved, unencumbered with the dark appendage following or leading.

In the middle of such a day, who would worry about the coming night?  It (and its shadows) were endless hours away.

But the skinny urchin is an old man now, living many miles north of that childhood home.  In winter, the shadows are long during all of the daylight hours.  All of them.

tiptildyshadowsJust last weekend, as I lazed in the sunlight, I glanced over at my backyard companions.  It was midday, yet the shadows cast by my canine buddies lying nearby stretched toward the north, looking for all the world like the going-home-shadow of the westering sun on the backs of those boys, all those years ago.

Somehow though, the shadows I dread in winter aren’t only those springing from the southern-fleeing sun.  There are other shadows, not explained by scientists or weather maps, that gather thick as the year ebbs.

Imagined or not, the shadows creep, as the nights grow longer, deep into the soul.  Whispering at first, they warn of impending loss and sorrow.  Soon the shadows are all we see; their threatening voices fill our hearing with raspy, wailing torment.

Why is it, do you suppose, the Church fathers chose December, the month of shadows, for the celebration of the coming of brilliant Light to all the world?  It is not likely that we celebrate the event at the time of year it actually happened.  And, it really doesn’t alter the reality of the marvelous story.

Still, I wonder—why this month?

Oh, but what a contrast!  Night and Day!

The shepherds felt the contrast.  We’ve heard it so many times, we don’t really think about it.  In the dead of the night, every shadow fled from the field in which they lay.  (Luke 2: 8-12)

The glory of the Lord shone round about them?

Sounds like the shadows were nowhere to be found.  As with the South Texas midday sun, the light blazed.  Absolutely blazed.

Uh.  They were afraid.  Really afraid.  I think that’s what sore afraid means.  Maybe even really, really afraid.

And the angels told them they had nothing to fear.  Nothing.  This kind of thing—this blazing light at midnight—was about to be the norm.  The Baby, the one they would find lying in a manger, had come to bring light. To all people, He would bring the noonday sun into their midnight darkness.  

To all people

The light has shined in the darkness.  It will never be truly dark again. (John 1:5)

And the shadows?  Well, they’re just—just—shadows.  No substance, only threats.  With the coming of Light, they slip away, as if they never really were there.  

Light trumps darkness every time.

Even in the short, gloomy days of winter.  Maybe, especially then.

Worship Christ, the newborn King.

 

 

 

 

 

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.
(2 Corinthians 4:6 ~ NIV)

 

 

 

 

She bore to men a Savior, when half-spent was the night.
(from Lo How a Rose, E’er Blooming ~ German carol ~ ca. 15th Century)

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2015. All Rights Reserved. 

On a Clear Day

I hear her still, the beautiful pure tones spilling into the air like bird song in the early morning quiet.

“On a clear day, you can see forever…”

It was many years ago I first heard the heart-stopping sound of Barbra Streisand’s unique voice singing that song.

I thought she was right.

All of life lay in front of me.  In plain sight, I could see the future—the beautiful wife, two kids, a great career.  I could see all the way to grandchildren and retirement.  There would always be friends, and always a church.  Always.  

I could see it vividly, on those clear days.

It may come as a surprise to some.  It did to me.

They’re not all clear days.

Oh, there have been days, when as Christian in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, I stood on the mountaintop and thought I could just make out—barely—the lights of the Celestial City.

Lately, I’m not even sure they’re mostly clear days.

I certainly haven’t stood on any mountaintops recently to take a peek through the telescope at what’s coming.  Days are just filled with daily things.

Family concerns, friends with health concerns, and loved ones lost—all these and more are what is reality for me—and many others—these days.  Happy times?  They come too, but somehow we can’t see far beyond them.

Step by slogging step, the road goes past.

Frederic_Leighton_-_The_Star_of_BethlehemI may not see forever all that clearly anymore.  But what I do see, by the calendar and by the frenzy of last minute preparations around me, is that it’s Christmas week.

I used to wonder if the Baby, whose birth we celebrate this week, saw it all before Him as He stepped out to take His place among men.  

Did He see the path laid out from His lowly birth in a cow barn, all the way to an ignominious criminal’s death on a man-made tree?  Was every step clear to Him?

They are questions I cannot answer.  Theologians have been arguing them from that day until now.

Here is what I do know:  

He knew who He was. As a young man He taught in the temple, calling it His Father’s house .  (Luke 2:49)

He knew why He was here.  He went about His Father’s business.  When He began His ministry, He never faltered in His purpose.  Always, without leaving the path, He moved steadily toward the day when He would die on that cross.

He knew who He was here for.  Along the way, He touched people’s hearts and their bodies, healing and making whole.  Teaching them, feeding them, exhorting them, He demonstrated His heart and drew them to Himself—by the thousands.

He was, indeed, the light of the world! (John 8:12)

And with that thought kindled in my mind, I begin to see the truth about my own situation.

The truth.

I don’t have to see the end of the journey; I just have to put one foot in front of the other.  

There’s enough light for that.

The Word, the One who came and lived among men, is the same Word that is the lamp to my path and the Light for my feet. (Psalm 119:105)

Barbra needed her clear day.

We’ve got a light for the darkest night.

 

 

 

 

And on a clear day…
On a clear day…
You can see forever…
And ever…
And ever…
And ever more.
(from On a Clear Day, You Can See Forever ~ Alan Jay Lerner ~ American lyricist ~ 1918-1986)

For we walk by faith and not by sight.
(2 Corinthians 5:7 ~ NIV)

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2015. All Rights Reserved. 

Still Ringing In My Head

Bells!

I can’t get them out of my head.  Mr. Longfellow heard them.  I thought I was listening too.

Joy to all people.  All is well.

Lesson learned.  Can we move on now?
__________

My young friend blew in from the dreary, damp world recently.  I asked her cheerfully how her day was going.  The anguished look in her eyes was enough to let me know I had touched a sore spot with those few words.

“Oh.  Please don’t ask me to answer that question.”

She always smiles.  Not that day.  It was as if the door was slammed shut on her feelings.  I have learned to leave those doors alone.

I apologized and helped her find what she needed.  As she headed for the exit, briefly, a window opened up to her emotions and she mentioned how hard Christmas will be this year with her mom gone.  Tears glistened in her eyes as she turned to go out the door.  Mine too.

The bells hanging on the door knob jangled rudely as the door shut behind her.

Bells!  What is it with the bells?

Addison came with her mom the next day.  Her mom washes our windows once a month to make sure we can see out and customers can see in.  Five years ago, we became good friends, Addison and I.  She came every time her mom did and we visited.  A lot.  She brought me flowers.  I gave her candy.

But, little girls grow up and go to school.

“I’m too busy to come most times now.  You’ll just have to get used to seeing me once in awhile.  Okay?”

That day, while her mom washed windows, Addison and I talked.  Well, Addison talked.  I listened.  After awhile, she asked her mom to unlock the car so she could get something to show me.

I wondered what it could be.  You already know what it was.

Yep.  A bell.

A single little brass bell to hang on her Christmas tree.  She shook it proudly.  Again and again.

And again.

I like Addison.  I was glad when she left with her bell.

I wonder.  Did I really learn the lesson of the bells?

What was I missing?

Ah well.  It would come to me.  Or not.

I sat in my easy chair the same evening and dozed off by the fire.  Warm and comfortable, nothing would bother me in my cozy den.

My sleep was filled with the sound of–yeah, you knew it was coming–bells.  While I slept, the antiques program the Lovely Lady was watching on the television had ended and a holiday concert by a bell choir began.

I slept as long as I could and finally brought myself to wakefulness, grumpy and almost angry.  Stupid bells!

Stupid bells!

I reached for the remote, but something stopped me.

The music was beautiful.

Bell choirs are amazing cooperative efforts in which no one takes a front seat and every single ringer is absolutely essential to the process.  From the tiniest of tinkly high notes, all the way down to the huge bass bell, nearly two feet across at the throat of the brass dome, each one plays its part.

At exactly the right time, the different bells sound, manipulated by different people, both male and female.  Entrances have to be perfect; cutoffs, precise.  No one carries the entire melody; no individual person is relegated to the rhythm part.  Every single bell counts.

I overcame my grumpiness and frustration to listen to the astounding music.  Beautiful songs.

Old familiar carols.

Bells.  Playing old familiar carols.  Who knew?

You’re humming the song aren’t you?  (I heard the bells on Christmas day, their old familiar carols play…)

I listened to the breathtaking music and my uneasiness grew again.  Something was wrong.  Unfinished business.  No, that wasn’t it.  You know how it is when you know you’re missing something, but you can’t quite put your finger on it?

And then I saw her.  Playing the bells. There!

No. Not on the television.  In my mind.

My Mom.  She loved the bells.  She wasn’t all that good at them; coming in on the wrong beat here; letting the tone ring in the air too long there.  No matter.  She loved playing with the bell choir.

I can see her now, sitting with the bells on the table in front of her, watching the music and the director like a hawk ready to attack, counting the beats.  She is desperately hoping that she comes in at the right place, but laughing at herself when she doesn’t.

Beautiful bells.

The tears come again as I write.  I listened to that bell choir and wiped the tears then too.

I miss my Mom.
__________

And still the bells ring–of peace on earth and good will to man. (Luke 2:14)

Their tones pure and clear, they ring out.  Oblivious to our moods, our battles, our disasters, they ring out.  Parents die or are lost to us.  Children grow up and away from us.  Still, the bells ring their message.

Peace on earth.  Good will to man.

Joy.

I thought I had learned the lesson.

Perhaps this is why Christmas comes around again every year.  Lessons are forgotten.  Situations change.  Old habits are taken up again.

We need to be reminded.

A Savior came to earth.  To save us.  To teach us.  To change our hearts.

Is there still sadness?  Death?  Poverty?  War?  The answer is still yes.

But the day is coming. . . (Isaiah 9:5-6)

I’ll wait.  And while I wait?

I’ll keep listening to the bells, Mr. Longfellow.

 

 

 

 

He will swallow up death forever!  The Sovereign Lord will wipe away all tears.
(Isaiah 25:8a ~ NLT)

 

The time draws near the birth of Christ;
The moon is hid; the night is still;
The Christmas bells from hill to hill
Answer each other in the mist.
(from The Eve of Christmas ~ Alfred, Lord Tennyson ~ English poet ~ 1809-1892)

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Face Toward Home

Home.

GoingHomeI’ve been thinking a lot about home the last few days.  Well—it is normal for that to happen this time of year.  Christmas memories do intrude on normal life.

For most folks, they do.

I’ve mentioned before that I didn’t really experience Christmas as a child.  We took a different path as a family and didn’t celebrate the holiday.  Perhaps I’ll spend some time on that subject again—perhaps not.  All it means to this discussion is that I have no childhood Christmas memories calling me back home.

Still, my mind drifts back again.  

I can’t help it.  Events and family decisions are conspiring to draw me back to the place I still call home, in spite of nearly forty years of being away.  And, in the midst of planning for one last trip home—one last chance to say goodbye—my head is alive with memories.

They are memories of a home filled with love and music.  They are also memories of the same home filled with sibling rivalry and loud arguments, lasting late into the night, about every subject you could imagine.  A lifetime ago in that home, my brothers, sister, and I developed from awkward, dependent little brats into strong, responsible adults (for the most part).

Denim jeans worn through at the knees and patched by a red-headed lady—muttering and shaking her head all the while—play a part in the memories.  So too, do wool sweaters crocheted by the same red-headed lady—this time, smiling and humming at her work.

The events that shaped the humans we are today are still in our heads, just waiting to be captured by the fickle net of memory and brought to the surface at any moment.

They’re not all happy memories.  Then again, for me, they’re not mostly sad ones either.  

I’ll take one last trip home.  

Closure.  The long chapter will be finished.

Somehow though, during this Christmas season, interlaced with the weaving of denim and wool memories of that long-ago home has been the sheer and silky fabric of a home I have not yet been to.

I’ve never been there, but lately it feels more like home than any place to which I’ve ever given that name.  Perhaps, it’s because the red-headed lady who raised me has moved there within the last year.

I don’t think it’s only that.  I don’t think it’s even mostly that.

The realization hit me just this week, as I joked with a customer in my business.  I haven’t been feeling well for a day or two and my plaintive reply to his casual query about my general well-being led him to say the words.

“Well, it’s better than the alternative.”

I started to nod in agreement, but suddenly it occurred to me.

No.  It’s not.

The realization was like an electric shock.  I don’t want to stay here one second past time to go home.  Not an instant.

Home is the place we are aiming for.  It’s the ultimate goal of our labor and living here.  

I told him so.  He didn’t want to talk about it anymore.  I wonder why?

My mind wanders a bit further afield.  Suddenly, I’m thinking about Him.  You know who I mean.  The Baby—the One whose birth we’ll celebrate in a few days.  He left home.

It was a big deal.  Home was better.  Really better.

Still, He left home.  For us.  To teach us.  To touch us.  To save us.

To take us home with Him—so we could be with His Father.

Funny.  I suddenly remember why I mostly want to go home.  

To be with my Father.

Yes, the red-headed lady who raised me will be there.  She’ll be there, along with many others I want to see again.  A lot. 

But, I want to be with my Father.

In a week or so, I’ll turn my face toward my old home.  Even then, My face will be toward my real home.

It’s out there still.  Just up ahead.

I can almost see the lights from here.

 

 

 

Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.(Hebrews 11:16 ~ NIV)

 

Strengthen us to go on in loving service of all thy children. Thus shall we have communion with thee, and, in thee, with our beloved ones. Thus shall we come to know within ourselves that there is no death and that only a veil divides, thin as gossamer.
(from a prayer by George MacLeod ~ Scottish soldier/clergyman ~ 1895-1991)

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2015. All Rights Reserved. 

Hearts Racing

Another Christmas program night—somehow I always feel I’m at a recital.  

Will Jackie perform his duet with his sister?  Can the brass ensemble get through their piece without falling apart?

On this recent Sunday evening, the tension was not as palpable as some of those recitals I’ve attended, but the undercurrent still made itself known.

Parents sat with arms lovingly around their children—children normally aloof and independent, but now somehow in need of reassurance.  Even adults who would take part sat, breathing a little rapidly, looking fixedly ahead at the activity before them.  Periodically, their eyes would dart down to the programs on their laps, as if to assure themselves that their opportunity to participate hadn’t yet passed.  I found myself wondering if their hearts weren’t beating a bit harder and faster than was usual.

I stood near the back, taking in the scene. I would share the stage with fifteen other men to sing an Advent anthem later.  There being almost no danger of individual disaster with so many others to cover up my errors, I had no personal sense of impending doom.  

Somehow, as usually happens, Jackie and his sister did wonderfully.  The brass ensemble did an extraordinary job, their efforts being rewarded resoundingly by the applause of those listening.  Parents were pleased and perhaps, a little proud.  Even the singing men did their job admirably, sounding better than they ever had.

Perhaps the reason for elevated heart rates was past.  It was all downhill from here.

Perhaps not.

Nearing the end of the program, a large group of folks, some old, some young, approached the stage.  They were dressed alike, almost as if in uniform.  The moderator of the program explained what was to come.

An elderly lady, who usually attends our services, has been too ill to be there recently.  This group had prepared something—a song—to be recorded and played for her later in her room at the rehab center.

There were smiles all around the auditorium as her name was mentioned; this lady is a favorite of many.  She always sits near the front of the building, and is visible to most who attend.  Another young lady of our group always sits nearby, facing her.

You see, the elderly lady is deaf—her companion in the services, her interpreter.  The sign language is a constant through the service, from the announcements, through the music and on, until the conclusion of the sermon.  I’m often on stage for the musical part of our worship, so I can see her face beaming as she also participates in signing the words of the songs we sing.

The group on stage this night had learned sign language for the song we would hear.  It is not a new song, but is contemporary in rhythm.  (A link to the song may be found below.)  There is a solo part and also several choral parts, coming in a different times throughout the piece.  I assumed the performers would sign for the solo part only, understanding that our friend is used to having only that single line interpreted to her.

My assumption was wrong.  Indeed, the entire group signed in unison for the opening solo part, but as the choral parts entered and then split, coming in at different times and layering in, one on top of the other, the “singers”  on stage did the same.  One group carried the solo part, others, on either side of the group signed for the different choral part.

It was a thing of beauty, almost choreographic in character.  The evocative nature of hand motions is a natural thing for humans anyway.  These just communicated exact language—no, not just language—even the rhythm and layering of the vocal parts were represented.

I admit it.  It was a little hard to see through the tears.  

I’ve told you that music does that to me.  There is an emotion that music awakes and the tears flow, whether or not I wish them to.  This was even more powerful.

But, something bothered me.  I cast about for a few seconds and the elusive thought was caught.  Our friend can’t hear the sound.  She only sees the motions.  

I wondered what that would be like.  For a moment, I closed my ears with the palms of my hands.

Only for a moment.

Did I tell you the heart-racing moments were over for the night?  Not true!

A split instant after my hands covered my ears,  I realized I couldn’t hear the music.

I couldn’t hear the music.  I couldn’t hear the words.

The beautiful movement on the stage continued, but I didn’t understand the language.  Not only could I not hear, I was illiterate.  

Quickly, I removed my hands from my ears, but it was too late.  My heart was racing and the tears, which had only clung to the corners of my eyes before, ran freely down my face.

It was a good thing I had stayed near the back of the darkened auditorium.  I dug my handkerchief out to wipe away the evidence of the tears, but still my heart thumped away in my chest.

I had felt that same panic just the day before.  On Saturday morning, I laid under the sink in the bathroom, working on the plumbing.  Completing the job, I leaned forward to rise to my feet.  

The world spun.  

It wasn’t the normal passing darkness brought on by the blood rushing to my head.  The room around me spun in huge looping circles, causing me to lose my balance and tip toward the wall.  I quickly grabbed onto the lavatory and held on for all I was worth.

With heart pounding and panic-filled, I made my way to my easy chair.  I stayed there most of the day.

Not in control.  It’s a terrifying feeling.  

What if the vertigo never goes away?  How will I work?  How will I play my horn?  How will I play with my grandchildren?

Not in control.

And suddenly, it occurs to me that Jesus, God with us, put aside the authority of His position and relinquished control.

For us.  Of His own volition.

He put His hands over His ears and left them there.  Well, not in reality, but in essence, that is what He did.  

CorreggionativityThe powerful King of Heaven came to us as a tiny, weak baby.  He was completely dependent on a mother and father for everything.

He learned the language as children do.  He, who was the Word—from the beginning was the Word—had to learn words in the same way we do.

By rights, every cow on the hoof and every ear of wheat in every field is His to eat, but He was hungry in the desert.  (Matthew 4:2-4)

The water of every mountain stream belongs to Him; still, He hung on a cross and cried out, “I thirst.” (John 19:28)

His sight is so keen that He sees to the end of time, yet He was blindfolded and beaten as they taunted Him to tell who had hit Him. (Luke 26:64)

I don’t know if His heart pounded, nor if the tears flowed.  But, I do know He chose—He chose—to relinquish control.

For all of humanity.

Funny.  My heart races a little again, as I consider it.

There are still tears in my eyes.

Perhaps, it’s time for me to give up control, too.

Again.

 

 

 

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part.
Yet what can I give Him?
Give my heart.
(Christina Rosetti ~ English poet ~ 1830-1894)

 

 

 

…who though He existed in the form of God
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,
but emptied Himself
by taking on the form of a slave,
by looking like other men,
and by sharing in human nature.
He humbled Himself,
by becoming obedient to the point of death
—even death on a cross!
(Philippians 2:6-8 ~ NET)

 

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2015. All Rights Reserved. 

Bells Ring

Nearly Christmas.  All is well.

That’s what I’m supposed to write, isn’t it?

Am I the only one who isn’t happy?

It’s hard to write when one is gloomy.  My mood matches the weather lately.  Cloud-bound and gray.

The world around me is angry.  Races are pitted against each other.  The wealthy and the poor are caught up in a war of the classes.  Friends battle with friends and brothers are angry with their brothers.

What’s not to be sad about?

I wonder.  Would it be okay for me to just  share a poem tonight?  The writer of these words had reason to be sad.  He had reason to be angry.

His wife had died from burns she received when her clothing caught fire.  In putting out the fire, he himself had been burned badly.

The next Christmas, he wrote this:  “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.”

The year after, at Christmas, he penned these words, “‘A Merry Christmas,’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

War raged in the countryside and his son was seriously injured in battle.  At Christmas that year, he was silent.

Silent.

Ah!  But the next Christmas–the next Christmas, these timeless verses came.  And, with them–hope.

And, peace.

Christmas Bells

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
     And wild and sweet
     The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom
     Had rolled along
     The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,

The world revolved from night to day,
     A voice, a chime,
     A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;

“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
     “For hate is strong,
     And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;

“God is not dead; nor doth He sleep!
     The Wrong shall fail,   
     The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

He wrote the words exactly one hundred fifty-one years ago this Christmas. Death and war, pain and hatred, were the language of the day.  

The intellect of the poet said exactly what mine echoes today.

What’s the use?  Nothing changes.

But the heart–no, the very soul–of the believer knows.  It knows that the Child who was born on that first Christmas day brought with Him a message of Hope and Peace.  And Joy.

Joy that shall be to all people.  All people.

I think I’ll listen to the bells.

All is well.

 

 

 

“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
(Luke 2: 10,11,13,14 ~ KJV)

Christmas Bells by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

The Same Baby

It is dress rehearsal night for the annual Christmas Candlelight service at the local university.  As usual, nerves are frayed.

The veteran director, at other times a jovial prince of a man, is unhappy with what he hears.  The handbells aren’t balanced well with the brass, nor even with the choir.  His stress is handed off to the technical staff as they scramble to set up the correct microphone array. 

Lighting, entrances, even the correct height at which to hold a music folio—all of these details must be attended to.  A spectacular presentation depends on the tiniest of details.

There was a day when I too was caught up in the stress and nervousness of the moment.  My part is so small, minuscule even, but the charged atmosphere has a way of affecting everyone.

Tomorrow, this has to be perfect!  We can’t miss a step! 

Funny.  Tonight, I sit in my place and, instead of worrying about the details, I wonder when I got old.

No, really.  

I was a young man when I started doing this.  The members of the student choirs were my peers, young adults who had been sitting at their parents tables just weeks before.  That’s no longer the case.

These students could be my grandchildren.  My grandchildren. The thought hits home and I let it sink in.

What am I doing here? What purpose can be served by my presence in this gathering?   

My mind forges ahead as I consider that many—perhaps most—of these young people would not agree politically with me.  In fact, they would most likely oppose some of my most cherished ideals vociferously.  

They probably even eat sushi!

Once started down this road, it is easy to barrel on to the bottom at full speed.  I enumerate mentally all the differences I can see (and some I can’t) and suddenly, I feel as if I am surrounded by aliens.  We are so different.

What am I doing here?  I ask the question once more.

I jerk into cognizance, realizing that the white-haired man with the baton is back on the podium and the aliens, I mean—choir members,  are standing and ready to sing.

Quickly finding my place in the printed music on the black stand before me, I begin to play the horn along with my fellow ensemble members.  With a gesture here, and a short comment there, the man with the stick draws each musician further into the composition.

Before I know it, the answer I sought mere moments before is all around, literally all around, me.  Beautiful music, no—soul-moving tonality, emanates from every point of the compass.

It is not seamless.  One can sit back and pick out the trumpet notes.  The bass voices singing in the back may be distinguished from the sopranos standing closer.

Not one of us—not one—loses his or her identity in the mingling of voices which has occurred.  A mosaic, yes, even a patchwork of sorts has been assembled from all the diverse human voices, the odd shapes of brass instruments, and the different sized bells.

Did I say it is not seamless?  I’m not sure that is true.  The end product, for all its variegated shading and changes in texture, is truly unified.  All parts, equally, are integrated into the stunning result.

This.  This is why I am here.  

Old man that I am becoming, I was intended to be here, at this moment.  Each of the youngsters in the choir was destined to be part of this memorable composition of voices and instruments.

A short time later, as the instruments sit quietly and the voices begin an acapella piece, I marvel.

So many different voices.  Such varied family backgrounds.  Such diversity in religious doctrine.

All singing about one thing.  One person.

One Baby.  One Savior.

I close my eyes, listening to the young, yet ancient, voices.  I can’t help it, I seem to hear angels singing.  I’m not saying the choir sounds like angels.  I have no evidence to base such a statement on, having never heard an angelic message.

The shepherds, on the other hand—the shepherds heard it. (Luke 2:13-14)

Do you never wonder about the eclectic mix of folk who knew about the little Baby’s birth?  Angels certainly, and shepherds, and an inn-keeper.  The magi would come, in time.  Of course, there was Mary and her husband, Joseph.

All worshiping the same Baby.  The One who came to save all of us.

All of us.

Soon, hundreds will sit in the hard wooden pews of this beautiful cathedral.  Side by side, they will sit and sing, and listen, and worship.

Rich and poor, educated and illiterate, liberal and conservative, white and brown and black—they will worship. Together, they will worship.

candle-633024_1280Still worshiping the same Baby—the One who came to save all of us.

And then, from one candle, a thousand will be lit in this auditorium.  What a picture!

A brilliant picture of His purpose in coming to earth.  From one Light, all who live in darkness will live in light. (Matthew 4:16)

I’ve watched the worshipers with their candles.  Some boldly hold them up high.  Others sit gazing at the flickering light with their hands on their laps.  Still others look to see what everyone else is doing with their candles before they position theirs.

It matters not.  The whole room is awash in light.  Every corner is illuminated. 

The voices stop and again, my musing ends as I am brought back to reality.  Tomorrow, we will make music together again, if the Lord wills it.  

We will worship the child.  Together.

Still, I wonder. 

What if we held our lights high through all of our lives, blending the brilliance together?

Would it be possible to make beautiful music with folks who are different than us for all of the years we live?

I would love to see that beautiful patchwork quilt—and listen to that heavenly music.

Glory to God in the highest.  Peace on earth to men.

It is what we were made for.

 

 

 

Worship changes the worshiper into the image of the One worshiped.
(Jack Hayford ~ American author/pastor)

 

 

. . . so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world . . .
(Philippians 2:15 ~ NASB)

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

 

Afraid

Chicken!  What are you afraid of? 

The raggedy collection of boys was gathered around, mostly sneering at the skinny kid with bare feet. He looked at their grinning faces as he ran his browned hand nervously through his short sun-bleached hair.

There was nothing to be seen there but derision and scorn.  Not one of them thought he had it in him.  He knew that.  They were certain the terrified little squirt was about to run home to his mama.

Squaring his bony shoulders and taking a deep breath, he looked at the biggest one of the bunch.

“I’ll do it.  I’ll show you.  You think I’m afraid of that old man? What’s he gonna do—call the cops?

With that, he turned and ambled toward the little convenience store determinedly.  The boys waited to see what would happen.

boysbeingboysMoments later, with a triumphant grin on his face, the skinny kid exited the tiny store.  Taking his sweet time, he sauntered up the street to where they waited under the hackberry tree.

They gathered around him again.  “Well?  Show us!” they demanded.

Slyly looking back toward the store, as if to be sure there were no eyes peering from the doorway, he reached in his pocket and drew out a box—a box—of wooden toothpicks.

The boys howled.  

Toothpicks?  You stole toothpicks?  What a loser!  First, you’re too chicken to go; then, you’re too stupid to steal something good. 

The derision coming from all directions was too much.  The little squirt ran home to his mama as fast as his bare feet would carry him.

What are you afraid of?

I want to tell you the answer is—nothing.  

Nothing at all.  I’m not afraid—period.

It’s a lie.

I do not believe anyone walks this earth who has no fears.  Fears come with being human.  

Danger breeds fear.  It’s not an unhealthy thing.

Fear of pain keeps me from putting my hand into the flame of the fireplace.  That’s good.  Burns are not healthy.  People die from severe burns.  You know—infection and all kinds of nasty stuff happens.

Still, there are some fears we keep hidden.  I not entirely happy about these fears.  You see, I have friends who are fond to suggesting that fear is not pleasing to God.  They quote Scripture to prove their point.

Give all of your anxiety to Him, because He cares for you (I Peter 5:7)

Perfect love casts out all fear. (I John 4:18)

I’m not saying they’re wrong.  Fear that paralyzes is not healthy.  Fear that overcomes us emotionally and physically yields disastrous results.

Perhaps, the problem is that we put all fear in the same basket. I’m assuming it’s not all the same.  After all, the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. (Proverbs 1:7

Fear then, can be useful. It teaches us to exercise care.  It admonishes us to consider carefully our course of action.

But, fear can also be harmful.  Sometimes it makes us curl up into a ball and let the world go by without us.  Often it takes away the impetus for doing good for others.

So, we come back to the original question.  

What are you afraid of?

I want it to be something noble.  I want to tell you I’m afraid I won’t have enough time to accomplish great things.  I want you to believe I’m afraid of not engaging people for Christ.  

It’s true. Those are, indeed, some of the things about which I’m concerned.  The problem is that most of the things I fear are not nearly so noble.

Not nearly. 

Someone asked me the question today.  They were being facetious.  I (also facetiously) told them I was afraid of what people would think of me.

It’s not a thing to joke about.  I am afraid of what people will think of me.

It is the reason the skinny boy who became a grown-up me went into that convenience store nearly fifty years ago—terror of what his peer group would think of him.

Sometimes though, the fear of what people think about me has a positive effect. It causes me to think about how God would have me live.  Other times—not so much.  In those times, my fear is for my reputation,  my image.

Then again, I have other fears which nag—nothing more—at the edges of my consciousness.  I fear being left alone, being left behind, and I want never to experience that reality.  I’m afraid of crying in front of other people, especially my children and the Lovely Lady.  Who wants to be seen as weak?

They’re not all that pretty, are they?  Not all so noble.  There are still a few I’m not yet ready to admit publicly.  

I wonder if I’m the only one.  Perhaps not.

Here is what I do know.  God uses fearful men to accomplish His purposes.

Moses was terrified of talking.  Simply talking.  He rescued an entire nation.

The prophet Elijah ran terrified from an already defeated king and hid in a cave.  God took Him to heaven in a chariot of fire.

Peter was full of bravado and brag, but he was afraid of the waves when He walked with Jesus on them.  He was terrified of a serving girl outside the trial of his Savior, soon to be crucified.  Yet, Peter became one of the founders of the Church as we know it today.

If we put our trust in Him, our God will turn our fears into actions which will yield good things in our lives.  Not just for ourselves, but for God and mankind.

The skinny kid, afraid as he was of what his friends would think, pulled one over on them.  The quarter he laid quietly on the counter as he slipped out of the convenience store more than covered the nineteen cent price tag for that silly box of toothpicks.

Fear works in more than one way.

Sometimes, it is the beginning of wisdom.  

The beginning.

What are you afraid of?

 

 

 

 

For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.
(2 Timothy 1:7 ~ NIV)

 

There are times when fear is good. It must keep its watchful place at the heart’s controls.
(Aeschylus ~ Ancient Greek playwright ~ 525-426 BC)

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2015. All Rights Reserved. 

Dots—Again

During the morning church service, the beautiful little girl sits on my leg and moves her crayon confidently from one point on the page in front of her to the next.  As she slides the brown-colored wax stick from number to number, the outline of a picture appears, clearly depicting a shepherd with his sheep.

It hasn’t always been like this.

A year or two ago the little tyke, one of my four favorite grandchildren, would have asked, in her version of a whisper (meaning: loudly enough for all nearby to hear clearly), “What do I do here, Grandpa?”

Grandpa would have explained that she needed to start on the number 1 and draw a line to the number 2.  A little squiggly line that wandered off to the side and then back again would have been drawn tentatively.  At that point, the crayon would be lifted from the page and the question repeated, possibly even a little more loudly.

Eventually the picture would be visible, although not nearly as neat as today’s, nor with as straight of lines from number to number.  Clearly, she has learned to connect the dots much more skillfully in the intervening time.

The services are notably quieter too, since she has learned to whisper a little better, as well.

I smile as I think about the beautiful little girl and how she is growing.  And learning.  But, as I think, my mind wanders.  Those dots remind me of something else.  They make me think a little about other types of connections.

Human connections.

They’re not so different from connecting the dots, are they?
                             

It has been a year ago.  It hardly seems possible, so little has changed.

My young friend, Grace, is studying photography at the local university.  She takes photos of what she sees. It is what photographers do. One of her photographs stopped me in my tracks.  Dead.  In my tracks.

The photograph will likely need some explanation.  Then again, perhaps not much.

The news was full of events in Ferguson, Missouri for months. Then, riots and looting broke out as the racial anger boiled over and the filters that, in ordinary circumstances, would prevent such action were lost or discarded.

Windows were broken. Fires were set.  Property was destroyed.  Guns were fired.

Many words have been spoken and written about the situation since then–words which were and are hurtful and angry.  My own emotions have surged as I have seen the images and have heard the angry words from many different perspectives.

I have stood in despair and wondered why those people would be so angry and destructive in their actions.  I have listened in horror and wondered why those other people would be so angry and hateful in their words.

Those people.

graceinferguson
Photo: Grace Nast Used by Permission

My young friend went to Ferguson. Herself.  Standing in the place where the horrible violence occurred, she took a picture of her feet.

That’s right.  Her feet.

On the ground.  In Ferguson. In the middle of the bricks and the ashes.

I glanced at the photo and shrugged mentally.  Big deal.

Then it hit me.

Those same feet, the ones in the blue sneakers, had walked into my music store one afternoon the week before.

Funny.  Her feet–the ones in the blue sneakers, on the ground in Ferguson– they stood on the ground in front of me just days earlier.

It’s the same ground.

Connected.

Suddenly, the miles and the man-made divisions seem insignificant as I begin to grasp the reality.   These are not someone else’s problems, occurring in a different world than the one in which I live and move.

These are my people.  What happens to them, happens to me.

To me.

In my mind the arguments pile atop each other; the evidence of connections between me and those people is overwhelming.  (Romans 10:12)

I want to convince with logic.  Perhaps, if I can overwhelm the reader with scientific proof of our shared ancestry, of DNA, of common history–perhaps then we’ll embrace each other.  Perhaps then the violence, the slurs, the hatred can stop.

It won’t happen.

The words I would say have all been said, the arguments made again and again.  The human heart is turned to evil and deceit, and only God can change it.  It has always been so.

But today, for me, sitting on the knee of the one true Artist, I see the connection.  Like my granddaughter, the skill at recognizing those points of connection may increase with maturity and practice.   

It may.

I want it to be true.

Maybe we can help each other.

We are connected, after all.

 

 

 

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
(Martin Luther King Jr ~ American pastor/civil rights leader ~ 1929-1968)

 

Be joyful.  Grow to maturity.  Encourage each other.  Live in harmony and peace.  Then the God of love and peace will be with you.
(2 Corinthians 13:11 ~ NLT)

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2015. All Rights Reserved.