Never Again a Stranger

I am a poor wayfaring stranger
While traveling through this world of woe.
Yet there’s no sickness, toil or danger
In that bright world to which I go.

Except, I’m not really.

A wayfaring person, that is.  Not in the sense that I actually travel long distances.

I see the questionnaire in the feed of my social media once in awhile.  I even took the test once.  It was embarrassing.  

The question asks, How many states have you visited?  

I’m not going to tell you the answer.  Let’s just say less than half of them.  I don’t have a deep-seated desire to travel.  I never really have.

I’m sure it says something about my personality.  I don’t really want to know.  Or possibly, I do.  

Maybe, I already know.

The song lyrics with which we opened this essay speak of traveling in this world, but they really look to the one to come.  And, the words used to describe the poet in the first line tell the story.  They tell it for me, anyway.

hiking-1312226_640A wayfaring stranger.

Were there ever two words juxtaposed to present such a bleak perspective?  It is not the picture of camaraderie, fellow travelers headed for a common destination. It is, however, a tableau of a lonely figure wandering along the highway, shoulders hunched and coat held tightly at the neck to block the icy fingers of the frigid winter’s chill. 

And, in that sad vision, I see myself clearly.  I don’t travel with ease, for new surroundings put me in strange circumstances, a stranger in a strange place.

I’m not apologizing.  I don’t even feel obliged to change.  

There’s a reason I often feel uncomfortable here:

I simply don’t fit in very well.

I’m not supposed to.

The Apostle for whom I am named suggested that we who follow Christ will never be at home here.  He, who historically was so bold as to claim citizenship in the Roman state even though he had never been in Rome, made an even bolder claim for us.

We are citizens of Heaven. (Philippians 3:20)

The poet called himself—and by association, each of us—a wayfaring stranger.  My friends who live in foreign countries have a different word.  Ex-pats, they fondly say, referring to themselves and folks who, like them, are not from the country they reside in physically.

Expatriates.  It comes from the Latin expatriare, meaning out of one’s native country.

The Apostle speaks of being surrounded by those who think only about life here on earth.  Somehow, they believe the journey all of us are on ends with death.  The result is a preoccupation with comfort here and now.  YOLO!  You only live once!

As if.  

Mr. Lewis suggests that,  unlike nature which is mortal, we are immortal and will live forever.  He is not wrong.

I cringe as I think about the number of times I have heard the YOLO phrase on the lips of others who claim to believe as I do, who say they follow the same Savior.

There are many who don’t seem like strangers here.  Blending in like natives, they indeed, act as if today is all there is to live for.  Certainly, they don’t seem like ex-pats, either to me or to the non-believers who surround us in this place.

But, I don’t speak for them.  I can’t see the heart of any man or woman, and certainly wouldn’t presume to know where their journey will lead them.

I only know I’m looking for the day when my journey is complete and I arrive at my true destination, my native country.  I don’t want to be an expatriate forever.

May I tell you a secret?  

This is one trip I’m enjoying.  Sure, I’m a stranger.  The road is not always comfortable.  Blazing hot days of struggling through the desert turn into the frozen blast as we scale the mountains between us and our destination.

There is pain and sorrow, there is loneliness and loss, along this road.

Ah, but the destination!

Like the Apostle and his citizenship in Rome, I have never been there.  I’m not bothered by that in the slightest.

You see,  I’m not a stranger there.

Home.  It is my home.

They know me there.

How about you?

 

 

 

 

What springs from earth dissolves to earth again, and heaven-born things fly to their native seat.
(Marcus Aurelius ~ Roman Emperor ~ 121-180)

 

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.  Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.
(1 Peter 2:11-12 ~ NASB)

 

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2016. All Rights Reserved. 

Never Much Hope

It was a hot Saturday afternoon in the Rio Grande Valley.  That, of course, could have described almost every one of the fifty-some Saturdays which occurred in any given year, but this one, I remember.

flag-football-1329752_640I remember it because it was the day the band geeks were going to show up the jocks in a game of two-below football.  I was one of the geeks.  Still am, truth be told.

You never saw such a group of unlikely athletes.  Oh, there were a few who had the physique for it, but the coordination hadn’t come along with the build.  On this day, we weren’t worried about that.

We were a team.  A group of guys focused on the same goal.  All for one and one for all.  We had heart.

The jocks showed up, jeering and making predictions.  Seventy to nothing, one big muscle-bound fellow taunted.  Others foresaw pain in our collective future.  

We weren’t afraid—much.

The game began.  For a little while, we held our own and it seemed that the predictions were very much flawed.  Then, little by little, our confidence faded.

Two-below football is a minimum contact form of the sport which allows blocking, but not much other hitting of body on body.  The person carrying the ball should expect nothing more than the slapping of two hands below the waist to bring the play to a halt.

Somehow, the jocks had the idea that it meant you simply tackled with two hands below the belt-line.  It turned out that one of the predictions had been right:  There was pain in our future.  A good bit of it.

I played for the entire first half.  A fair portion of the second half was spent on the ground along the sideline biting back the groans that a knee to the groin had elicited.  I was not alone on the sideline.  But still, I did get back out and play, however hampered I was by the discomfort, to end the game.

Heart or no heart, confidence or not, we lost—big time.  I don’t think the score was seventy to nothing, but it might as well have been.

There had never been a chance.  We were beaten before it began.

What’s that?

You thought the story would end better?  Perhaps a miracle finish?  Maybe a secret weapon to unleash upon the callous football players?

It didn’t happen.

It wasn’t a Hollywood story, you know.  It wasn’t even an epic fairy tale.

Happily ever after didn’t happen.

We lost.  Utterly and completely.

That’s life.  No, really.  It’s what life is.  Reality isn’t all parties and happiness.  Nobody wins every time.  Nobody.

Some of my friends will be unhappy with me as they read this.  Many voices have spoken different words into their lives.

I will respectfully and (hopefully) gently insist that our Creator has a different path for us.

For the last few years, the muttering has been growing.  Folks are unhappy with the thought that many good things are coming to an end.  We expected, as followers of Jesus, to live peacefully and unharmed in a bounty-filled land.

Wealth and plenty have been ours.  Our voices have been the only ones we heard, as we have grown fat and selfish.

Perhaps, I should speak for myself.  I have heard my own voice as I spoke words I believed to be true.  Speaking and not acting, I have grown fat.  In the absence of opposition, I have grown selfish beyond belief.

And now, in a way my grandparents and my parents never experienced, the world just outside my front door has grown increasingly unfriendly to my comfort and ease.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not claiming persecution.  I’ve seen—from afar—what happens to believers when they are persecuted.  I haven’t experienced even a fraction of that, nor have most folks I’m acquainted with.

But, it may come to that.  Being neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, I cannot say.

Still, we are promised, not comfort, but discomfort.  We are promised, not open arms from the world around us, but reproach.  Folks we call our neighbors will turn on us.

I’m not talking about end-times prophecy.  I’m simply averring that this is what life will be for us if we truly follow Jesus.  

After all, He is the One who promised hardship.  Promised it.  (John 16:33)

He never asked us to win the battle for men’s hearts for Him.  That’s His job.  He simply asked us to stand firm to the end.

He never suggested that we would be happy and trouble-free because we serve Him faithfully, but He did promise that we will inherit His kingdom.  (Matthew 5:10)  

And, that brings us to the one other thing He did promise:  The day is coming.

The day is coming when all of this will fade into nothingness.  All the pain.  All the sadness.  All the jeering.  All the hardships we’ve ever faced.

All of it.  Nothing.  Nothing at all.

The Apostle Paul wrote down the words he was given by the Spirit:  

There is no comparison in any way between the passing inconveniences of this world and the unbelievable glory which will be ours in the next.  (Romans 8:18)

There are days when I am overcome with weariness—with sorrow—with despair.  This mountain I am facing can never be scaled, can never be conquered.

A friend reminded me tonight of that great fortress called Doubting Castle, kept by the Giant Despair.  John Bunyan wrote of it hundreds of years past.  

Many I know have been held captive there.  Many I know are still chained in its dungeon.

Still, it’s as true today as it was in the days when Mr. Bunyan sat in prison for his faith—still as true as in the early days of the Church:  The world has been overcome by the One we follow.  The outcome has never been in doubt.

Our day is coming.  

Hope’s spark still burns deep within each one who follows Him.

Our enemy doesn’t play by the rules.  He never has.  He seems so much more powerful than we are.  That hasn’t changed, either.

We seem so easily injured and tired out.

But, the game is not over yet.

And, he has been fooled before.

And, defeated.

As it turns out, he’s the one who never had any hope of winning.

I’m going to stick it out.

You?

 

And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world.  
(1 Corinthians 15:19 ~ NLT)

 

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times, But that is not for them to decide.  All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
(from The Two Towers ~ J.R.R. Tolkien ~ English novelist ~ 1892-1973)

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2016. All Rights Reserved.

The Easy Stuff

Always look for the easy stuff first, son.

Mr. Sims was under the hood of his wife’s car, a wide grin on his face.  To this day, I have no idea what was wrong with my neighbor’s car, but he was pleased with the result of the few moments he had spent on his task.

There might have been a little chagrin in his manner, too.

Evidently, the problem had plagued the car for quite awhile.  Other repairs had been attempted, but that day he had finally found the solution.

It was so simple.  I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before!

Mr. Sims was a mechanic.  A good one.  

He was unhappy that his attempts to repair the car had gone amiss for so long, as he anticipated the worst.  The repair was, contrary to his expectations, basic and inexpensive.

batteries-364217_640Why do we miss the easy stuff?

The young man set the electric guitar, case and all, down on my counter with a sigh.  Disgust was written on his face.  It would soon be written on mine, as well.

I’m sorry, but it won’t work at all.  Everything was great at the rehearsal, but when we tried it at the gig, it just made fuzzy noises and then died completely.

My heart sank.  I sold him the guitar just last week.  It’s a very nice instrument.  I didn’t want to have to refund his money.  I would if I had to, but I didn’t want to.

Plugging the instrument in to an amplifier, I strummed a chord.  It sounded great.  For just a moment—it sounded great.

Then, the pretty tones started to sound fuzzy and distorted.  The clarity disappeared and left in its place nothing but jangly discord.

I was going to give him back his money, wasn’t I?

As I squatted there in front of the amplifier, guitar perched on my knee, my mind darted this way and that.  

What could be wrong?  Circuit board?  Pickup coil?  A new Sustainer pickup and circuit would cost more than two hundred dollars.  

What was I going to do?

I’m not saying I actually heard it then, but I can certainly hear his voice in my head as I write tonight.  Mr. Sims was a genius.  A genius in dirty coveralls.

Always look for the easy stuff first, son.

My mind switched gears.  Easy stuff—easy stuff. . .

Dead battery!  The pre-amp battery must be dead.  I opened the little compartment and, pulling the battery out, checked it with my tongue.  Well?  It was quicker than finding a multi-tester.  Besides, I was in no danger of being shocked—this time.

The battery was completely drained.  Dead as the proverbial door nail.

Easy stuff.

Why do we assume the worst?

Our culture—and I’m referring to the culture of the day, as well as our spiritual culture—has somehow convinced us to look for the hard answers.  We dig deep to answer the question that consumes us:  Why?

The men who trailed after the Teacher saw a man alongside the road who had been born blind.  They had deep questions.  They wanted to know why.  (John 9:1-7)

The Teacher wanted them to understand how.

There was no need to dig into the past.  There was no need to determine guilt.

The man’s only need was for light.  And sight.

Simple things.

That day, the blind man walked away seeing a world he had never before gazed upon.

The cynicism and pessimism in our culture, even within our circle of believers, is overwhelming.

Don’t hang around with him.  He’s got a filthy mouth.  

Don’t you know what she’s done?

I don’t see how you can stand him!

And again, we come to it.  The religious men gathered around the Teacher, wanting to hear how complicated it would be for them to please God.  

They were sure it would be a long discussion. It wasn’t.

Always look for the easy stuff first, son.

Okay.  That’s not exactly what He said.  But, it was just as simple, just as naive, in their opinion.

Love God.  Love each other.  (Matthew 22:36-40)

Maybe it’s simple and naive in our opinion, too.

We’re still arguing the deep questions today.  And all the while, folks around us are stumbling around in the dark.  Blind!

It’s time to get under the hood and get this jalopy going, isn’t it?

Mr. Sims knew how to make it run.

Always look for the easy stuff first, son.

It’s time to put in some new batteries.

Easy stuff.

 

 

When the solution is simple, God is answering.
(Albert Einstein ~ German-American theoretical physicist ~ 1879-1955)

 

He has told you, O man, what is good,
and what the Lord really wants from you:
He wants you to promote justice, to be faithful,
and to live obediently before your God.
(Micah 6:8 ~ NET)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Fight or Flight

It’s not a sight you’d expect to see, here in the foothills of the Ozarks.  The lush wooded landscape, along with the numerous rivers and creeks that crisscross the valleys and hollows hereabouts, doesn’t bear much resemblance to the cactus and sand-smothered expanses of the desert.

Nonetheless, I know what I saw with my own eyes.  While on a longish bicycle ride last week, I actually had to shake my head for a moment in unbelief.  

Surely it was my favorite childhood cartoon come to life!  Up ahead on the road as I crested a hill, a roadrunner stood, poised for flight.

Greater_Roadrunner_(Geococcyx_californianus)_(3399096675)
photo by Dominic Sherony

Well, not for flight.  

The earthbound birds prefer to outrun their predators with their strong and speedy legs instead of using their wings.  They can run as fast as 20 miles an hour when pursued.

The thing is, I can ride my bicycle faster than 20 miles per hour.  Downhill, anyway.  And, I was headed straight for the unfortunate creature as he stood downhill from me.

All Wile E. Coyote-ish, I sped right toward the sprinter.  

He, knowing that danger was approaching, ran for all he was worth.  I gained quickly.  I don’t know if he reached his top speed, but I do know I nearly ran him down.

Zig-zagging all over the road, he gave me no clear path to pass.  It was evident that every instinct told the poor bird I was a predator, intent on his destruction.  Regardless of the fact I was more intent on avoiding him than running him down, he only knew the terror that being close to death can bring.

At the last second, just before my wheels caught him up, the tricky fellow did the only thing he could do—the one thing he may not have known he had the ability to do—he flew up and off the pavement into the low-hanging branches of a maple tree that hung over the fence about twenty or thirty feet away..

He flew!  

The bird that I have always believed could simply avoid any pursuer by out-running it, flew.

Any lingering thought of the Warner Brothers cartoon bird from my youth disappeared from my consciousness with the suddenness of a pricked balloon exploding.

The bird didn’t push the Acme weights off the cliff onto me, didn’t draw a railroad tunnel on the side of a cliff for a train to blast out of and flatten me, didn’t light the wick on a rocket to launch me into the stratosphere.

He flew away.

Gone.  Just like that.  Disappeared from my sight.

One moment, certain destruction—the next, salvation from on high.

Dare I say anymore?  Need I?

Perhaps a word or two.

I’m not the only one who has felt the terror of late; I’ve seen it in the eyes of others.  Many see all chance of escape disappearing from their sight.

Some fear for their future, others for their children’s.   Aged and hardened old men weep in the darkness for the loss of their loved ones.  Young men and women despair of hope.

All run as fast as they can, hoping for escape, but pursued relentlessly by their terror.  There is no escape to be found.

I’ve written recently of the wings of eagles and the ability to run without tiring.  They are a gift from God and there is hope in His strength. (Isaiah 40:31)

But, what if there is another way?  What if the wings and the strong, untiring muscles are not meant to be tools for retreat, but a means of facing the powers that threaten us?

Perhaps, it is time, not for flight, but to fight.  (Ephesians 6:10-18)

And yet, I can’t help thinking there is one more thing to be said.  

What was it, now?  Let me see…

Oh yes.  I’m wondering if we’re all that good at identifying our enemies.

The birdbrain that ran away from me on the road that day thought I was his.  I wouldn’t have harmed a feather on his body.  

I wasn’t his enemy.  At all.

Sometimes, fear makes our enemies seem stronger than they are.  It even manufactures enemies where there are none.

Perhaps, after all, it is time for us just to stand.

Stand and see the salvation of the Lord.

Neither fight nor flight.

Just plain faith.

Salvation is certain.

Stand still.

Still.

 

 

He that flies counts every foeman twice.
(from The Two Towers ~ J.R.R.Tolkien ~ English author ~ 1892-1973)

 

But you will not even need to fight. Take your positions; then stand still and watch the Lord’s victory. He is with you, O people of Judah and Jerusalem. Do not be afraid or discouraged. Go out against them tomorrow, for the Lord is with you!
(2 Chronicles 20:17 ~ NLT)

 

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2016. All Rights Reserved.

I Did That

I’m rethinking the events of my day.

No. Really, I’m wondering about the events of my life.  They’re all related, you know. 

It was a good day.  Well, I mean it was a good day until I spent an hour or so in the dentist’s chair, panicking like a waterboarding victim at Gitmo.  Before that, though…

Before that, though, I got to do what I’ve done most work days for the last thirty-plus years.

I got to assist folks in making purchases which will help them make music.  I helped some teachers make purchases which will aid them in helping people learn how to make music.

I even worked on several instruments to improve their ability to be used in making music.

It doesn’t sound like much, does it?  I simply help people make music.

A couple of different people today referred to me as the music man.  But, except for sporadically, I don’t actually make music myself.

Still, the enjoyment I receive from sitting in a concert, listening to students play instruments I either procured for them, or repaired for them, cannot be overstated.

Watching a guitarist in the park play a gig on an instrument which was lying on my work bench that morning brings a thrill I’m not sure I can describe.

At times like that, it’s hard to keep from looking at the person sitting beside me and nudging them before whispering in their ear:

I did that!

Funny thing, every time I start to think like that—every time—I get a nudge from the Spirit that lives inside of me.  And I hear a voice, a voice audible only to me, saying;  

No.  I did that.  (1 Corinthians 4:7) 

Can I tell you a secret?  

There is no less joy—no smaller personal reward—in acknowledging God’s hand in my life, than in pridefully claiming the credit myself.  There is even more than a little relief in making the admission.

If I am responsible for yesterday’s conquests, the pressure to perform the same feats tomorrow is squarely on my shoulders.

They’re not strong shoulders.

His are.

The longer I live, the more clear it becomes that any legacy I hope to leave behind will not last more than a few days past my departure from this life.

Unless—unless the legacy is not dependent on my activities, not attributed to me alone.  The things I do that shine a spotlight on myself are nothing, simply the emperor’s clothes.  I might as well stand in plain sight without a stitch of clothing on. 

A legacy comes from living a life with purpose.  It comes from giving everything you’ve got for something bigger than fame, or reputation, or wealth.
                              

One of the instruments I laid on my work bench today was a fine electric guitar, if not an expensive one.  The owner wanted me to put new pickups in it, so he could achieve a different sound than the originals were capable of.  

He has been working on the appearance of the guitar.  By that I don’t mean he has been polishing it up, or touching up the finish.  

What I mean is that the owner has been abusing the finish on the body of the instrument.  He wants people to think he’s playing an old, vintage guitar.  Sandpaper and a screwdriver are among the tools he has used to lovingly deface the glossy paint and to scar the wood.

2016-06-17 00.39.57-2More than one person stopped by my work bench today and saw the poor guitar lying there.  The work the owner has done paid off.  

Guitarists have a soft spot in their hearts for an instrument that has paid its dues.  A vintage instrument, worn and beaten, but still in service, has (and rightfully so) earned their respect.

I saw the respect and reverence in the eyes of the onlookers today.  Immediately, I invited them to touch the instrument.  

Within a second of touching the so-called wear on the guitar, the respect and reverence was gone from the faces of every single one who tried it.  In the same faces, I saw chagrin and derision.  Chagrin at being fooled.  Derision at the idea that such an instrument was worthy of respect.

The guitar, although very much a real and worthwhile instrument, is a fake.

A fake.  However useful, it is trying to gain respect not due it.  Honor comes with service.  And perseverance.  

Good honest wear comes from years of being held in the hands of the music man.  The hands of the person who knows how to squeeze the tonality and volume from the depths of the instrument.  

The wear that comes from a lifetime of service will leave scars.  It will leave bare spots and faded places.

All smooth as silk.  The rough edges are rubbed away, the raw crevices of accidental gouges worn down to a gentle slope.

Touchable.  Comfortable.  

Beautiful.

And somehow, we’re not talking about guitars anymore, are we?

In the hands of the Music Maker, service becomes legacy.  (James 1:12

Hardship becomes blessing.

Disaster becomes opportunity.

Good.  Honest.  Wear.

The day is coming when I will stand before the real Music Man.  I think I’d like to hear His voice say—just His, and no one else’s:

I did that.

Scars, gouges, and thin spots.  

His legacy.  

Not mine.

His.

 

 

 

Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.
(The Velveteen Rabbit ~ Margery Williams ~ English/American author ~ 1881-1944)

 

 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(Romans 8:38-39 ~ NASB)

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2016. All Rights Reserved.

All Together Now

She had carried the old guitar in, asking if I wanted to buy it.

It’s not an unusual question.  It seems I answer that one every day.

They don’t carry in instruments like this one every day, though.  The beautiful, vintage guitar grabbed my attention from the moment it came out of the case.

I was pretty sure I did want to buy the pretty thing, but first, I had to hold it in my hands, making sure the initial visual impression would be borne out by the actual playing experience.

Dad had the right idea when he taught me, many years ago, that the proof of the pudding is in the eating.  Good looks are nice, but the item has to live up to its promises.

Tuning the old strings, I ran the pickup selector switch through all the positions.

In the number 1 position, the neck pickup was full and bass-y.  That was exactly what I was expecting.

Then I switched to number 2, and the center pickup dropped out a lot of the bass, but was really strong in the mid-range sounds.  Again, no surprises.

Number 3, producing a signal from the pickup nearest the bridge, was very different, with all treble tonalities and almost no sustain.  You might even have called it twangy.  Exactly the sound a bridge pickup should emit.

Everything worked!  But I wasn’t ready to make an offer yet.

I flipped the selector switch to the last position, this one marked ALL.

The change was profound!

2013-06-19 12.21.29-2All the tonal qualities from each pickup were combined into one signal.  The edgy tone of the bridge pickup, the mid-range punch of the center pickup, and the full-throated growl of the neck pickup, all joined their voices to fill the air with captivating sound.

I glanced over at the old woman, seated nearby on a stool, and she was grinning from ear to ear.

“I think the price just went up,” she teased.

Without reservation, the answer to the original question was yes!

Yes, I certainly wanted to buy the guitar, so we struck the deal.

It was hanging on the wall of the music store as I wrote this, awaiting the little bit of tender, loving care that would bring it back to top condition once again.

My mind goes back again to that moment.  Oh, it was heaven to hear!

I looked at the name stamped on the headstock of the guitar and thought, how appropriate.

The company that built the fine old instrument was the Harmony Guitar Company.

The  lesson I am learning–have been learning for many years–is contained in that brand name.  Wrapped up in one word.

I love harmony.

Orchestras, choirs, barbershop quartets, rock groups, or church congregations—it doesn’t matter.  They all transform from a ragtag bunch of individual musicians into one cohesive musical instrument as they blend their voices and talents together.  And whether we are listening, or performing, it is an exquisite joy to experience that blending—that cooperation—with others.

I love to listen to soloists.  But, for the most part, they don’t—ever—sing without harmony.  Only if they sing a capella, without accompaniment, do they truly sing a solo.

I don’t think I would ever want to attend an entire concert of a capella solo music.  I say that with some assurance.  A fair amount.

Our ears naturally want to hear harmonies, if only in the quiet chords of a guitar, or the moving undertones of a string bass.

It is indeed our experience in all of life, and not just in the sphere of music.

We each have a distinctive voice.

Some of us are all grumbly, bassy resonance.

Others are the almost nondescript mid-range, providing the in-between parts in the grand scale of life.

The high voices cut through the mix, edgy and clear.

We need to hear every one of these voices.  There is value in each one, and they will each have a time to shine alone.

But, when they join together in harmony, finding the right notes to complement the tonality of all the other voices?

Ah, heaven won’t be much better than that, will it?

Harmony between individuals is, indeed, a great and beautiful gift from our Creator. But, we don’t always want to find the right notes.

Too often, we desire to sing the lead part when we are better suited to a supporting part.  We argue and demand our due, creating discord and clashing with our fellow musicians.

I have been the cause of such disunity.  I’ve heard the dissonant tones, and watched people cover their ears and walk away in disgust.

Harmony demands the cooperation of everyone in the group.  It requires the constant attention to pitch and balance by each participant.

Somehow as a human race (and recent events only serve to put an exclamation point on it) we’re not all that good at holding harmony.

There have been, indeed, periods of spectacular effort and results.

And yet, individual voices always demand, eventually, to be heard above the chorus.  The result is always disastrous.

It always will be, when voices won’t follow the direction of the Master Conductor.  Harmony is elusive, even non-existent, without Him.

How will it ever be any different, if we who claim to follow His lead fight and bicker to prove whose voice should be heard?

How will those who deny His very existence ever see any evidence of who He is?  How could they recognize how essential His direction is in the life of those who would join the chorus?

I’m trying to listen for the other voices these days.

I don’t always have to hear my own voice louder than the others in the choir.  It has taken me many years to begin to grasp this lesson.

I haven’t mastered it yet.

Still, I’m loving the beautiful harmonies I’m starting to hear.  It’s sounding better to my ear all the time.

I’m wondering if life is just practice for the day when we’re all a part of heaven’s choir.

I’ve missed too many rehearsals already.

How about you?

 

How wonderful and pleasant it is
    when brothers live together in harmony!
For harmony is as precious as the anointing oil
    that was poured over Aaron’s head,
    that ran down his beard
    and onto the border of his robe.
Harmony is as refreshing as the dew from Mount Hermon
    that falls on the mountains of Zion.
And there the Lord has pronounced his blessing,
    even life everlasting.
(Psalm 131 ~ NLT)

 

In the end we shall have had enough of cynicism, skepticism, and humbug, and we shall want to live more musically.
(Vincent van Gogh~Dutch artist~1853-1890)

 

 

And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
(Colossians 3:14~ESV)

 

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2016. All Rights Reserved.

All The Way Home

Do you remember it?  

I do.  

Nothing quite matched the feeling of pedaling down the paved lane, firmly ensconced in the big, comfy saddle.   Pumping for all you were worth, flying low, both arms would be spread out like great pinions on the hawks that ruled the sky above.

Look mom!  No hands!

Was there ever such a feeling?  If there was, I don’t remember it.

I wanted to soar with the eagles.  Riding that bicycle was as close as anything I ever experienced.

“I bet I can ride all the way home without touching the handlebars!”

“Bet you can’t!”

All the way up the road, this tow-headed kid rode, arms outstretched, and legs pumping.  The smile on his face didn’t leave for an hour after he reached the gravel circle drive—without once grabbing for the handlebars in panic.

Soaring.

I never had the dream as a kid.  It only started when I was grown-up.  It’s a strange dream for an adult to have, or at least, to admit to having.

For years, I’ve dreamed of flying.  Not in an airplane, but really flying, arms spread wide, climbing on the wind currents and looking down at the open spaces below, for all the world like an eagle.

No fake wings.  No super-hero’s cape.  

Just me—arms spread wide.  Flying.

It wasn’t the kind of dream that terrifies.  I’ve had my share of those.  Falling from the edges of cliffs so high the ground below can’t be seen—Running from terror behind me, feet sticking to the ground like a fly in molasses.  

Those dreams steal your strength while you sleep.

The soaring dream though, that one always left me wishing I could sleep a little longer.  I was happy when I had that dream.

I want to soar with the eagles.

I realized today that I haven’t had the dream for awhile.  I’m not sure why.  I thought earlier tonight, as I lay in bed with sleep eluding me, that perhaps it had something to do with my taking up bike riding again.

It’s possible.  I no longer stretch my arms out and pretend to soar, but I do feel like I’m flying low sometimes.  There’s a freedom and a childlike joy in riding the country roads and byways at breakneck speed, pushing—always pushing—faster.

Maybe I just don’t need the dream anymore.  It may have absolutely nothing to do with the cycling.

The prophet, way back before Jesus, said the words.  I remember singing a song with them set to music as a child.

For they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.
They shall mount up with wings; they shall mount up with wings, as eagles.
They shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.

(James Granaham ~ 1840-1907)

New strength.  Stamina to go the distance, while younger, stronger folks drop out.

Wings to fly.  Wings like the eagle’s.

Soaring.

And suddenly, I also remember the funny (nearly) saying which I first heard a number of years ago.

It’s hard to soar with the eagles when you’re surrounded by turkeys.

Inexplicably, my mind is drawn to the memory of an annual event in a village not too many miles away from the beautiful town in which I reside.  While it’s no longer advertised due to a lot of negative (probably for good reasons) publicity, this little town featured (and still does, by some accounts) something they called a turkey drop during their annual festival. 

Small planes would buzz the crowds at low altitudes—and low speeds—as a person in the craft dropped live turkeys from the window.  

That’s right.  Live turkeys.

It wasn’t always a pretty sight.  Turkeys don’t fly much.  Some, not at all.  There were always a few that made it to the ground relatively unharmed.  Then there were the ones that simply splatted on the ground below, dying immediately.

Turkeys don’t fly much.  

They’re not known for their nobility (or mobility, for that matter).  

In the wild, they hide, using the ground cover to avoid their enemies.  If you’re not looking for them, you would almost never see one.

They blend into the scenery.  The most you’ll ever notice is their distinctive Gobble, Gobble, Gobble call.  It’s how they attract each other.  While remaining invisible to most of us.

I’ve never dreamed about being a turkey.

We were created for better things than hiding in the bushes and calling to each other.  

Yet somehow, that seems to be what we do, more often than not.

I want to have a bigger impact on my world than that.

There’s still time.  The sky is still up there waiting.

I just hope I don’t have to grab for the handlebars before I reach home.

Soaring.

 

 

…and there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces.
(Herman Melville ~ American novelist ~ 1819-1891)

 

 

Have you never heard?
    Have you never understood?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of all the earth.
He never grows weak or weary.
    No one can measure the depths of his understanding.
He gives power to the weak
    and strength to the powerless.
Even youths will become weak and tired,
    and young men will fall in exhaustion.
But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.
    They will soar high on wings like eagles.
They will run and not grow weary.
    They will walk and not faint.
(Isaiah 40:28-31 ~ NLT)

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Jettison

Do you remember pants with cuffs?

I don’t really understand the purpose of cuffs on pants.

Okay, that’s not completely true.  I recall pants I wore when I was a young boy.  They had cuffs.  Those cuffs didn’t resemble ones on the slacks which can be purchased in the local men’s wear shop at all.  Not at all.

I wore pants that could be grown into.  By that, you should understand that they were, more often than not, hand-me-downs passed to me from an older brother.

I am the youngest of four boys.  The possibilities for hand-me-downs were endless.  Sometimes, the hand-me-downs came to us already well-worn—shared by friends who had older boys than my oldest brother.

Hand-me-down hand-me-downs, you might say.

You get the picture.

Even when I was fortunate and the powers-that-be thought it prudent to purchase a new pair of jeans for me, they were always ordered (from the Sears & Roebucks catalog, of course) a size or two too big.

Either way—hand-me-downs or new—my pants always had cuffs.  Rolled up wads of material at the bottoms of the legs, they were always in the way.

But, the worst—absolutely the worst—were the times when I made the mistake of taking a shortcut through a dewy, damp field in the morning on my way to school.  Perhaps, I wasn’t going to school, but simply taking a Saturday stroll down to the fishing hole with the brothers.

The wet grass transferred its load of moisture directly into the cuffs—and, you guessed it, the cuffs would unroll.  Dragging the ground, the soaked cloth gathered all the dirt, leaves, and burrs to be found in the field.

That would be just the time some wise-guy would holler out, Hey! let’s race to the fishing hole!

Perhaps, it was only because I was the pipsqueak kid brother.  I blame the wet pants.  Either way, I was always the last one to the water’s edge.

The combination of the heavy dew and all the added debris hanging from the lowest extremity of my blue jeans made it feel like I was dragging one of the weights from our bodybuilding set behind each leg.

There was even one time. . .  No, that might not be appropriate here.  Let’s just suggest that it would be advisable to always wear a belt, and leave it at that, shall we?

You get the picture.  Cuffs, especially wet ones, are not a great fashion statement.

All that was years ago.  But even today my old friend from school days, Jeannean, gets out early on lots of mornings.  She walks through some of those same dew-covered fields and along some of those same levees I remember from my childhood.

DSC_3488
Dandelion. Photo by Jeannean Ryman

I bet she doesn’t wear rolled up jeans for the outings.

The camera she hauls along with her on those walkabouts captures some amazing shots.  She has been kind enough to allow me to use some of them on occasion.

I wonder.  In her photograph. which accompanies this page, can you see what covers the head of that puffball of a dandelion?  If necessary, you can click on the picture to enlarge it.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait for you.

The dew has settled into the white parachute-like stems above the tiny seeds and saturated them.  It’s not something that one would ordinarily care about, but those stems, every one of them, has a tiny hair-like umbrella, or parachute, structure at the end of it.

When the wind blows, the hairs stand out, catching the breeze and pulling the seed free from the plant. The seeds fly as far as the wind will carry them before gently dropping to the earth again, to repopulate again and again.

The dandelion in Jeannean’s photo has a slight problem.  You saw it, didn’t you?

When they are wet, the tiny hairs are plastered in place, unable to spread out and catch a ride on the wind.  Saturated with water, they cannot function.  If they do, in a heavy wind, get pulled from the plant, they will simply fall to the ground nearby, where they must strive with all the other seedlings for nutrients in the soil.

They were made for better things.

We were too.

There are so many things in this world that contrive to weigh us down.  Like the dew on the dandelion, or even the cuffs of a ragamuffin kid’s jeans, it seems always to be the mundane, the commonplace, which cause the most problems.

The words of the Apostle come to mind as I consider the truth in front of my nose.

The world is watching.  Time to shrug off the extra weight and the sin that is so bothersome.  In their full view, let’s run the race that is in front of us.  Steady now.  There’s a long way to go.  (Hebrews 12:1)

It’s impossible to float on the wind with all that extra weight, much less win a foot race with the others who are headed for the same fishing hole.

The course laid out for us in life is so much more important.  It calls for careful consideration.  We don’t need anything to weigh us down.

There’s still such a long way to go.

We don’t have to travel in hand-me-downs either.

I’m traveling light.

You?

 

 

“But I’ve been thinking, Mr. Frodo, there’s other things we might do without.  Why not lighten the load a bit?  We’re going that way now, as straight as we can make it.”  He pointed to the Mountain.  “It’s no good taking anything we’re not sure to need.”
Frodo looked again towards the Mountain.  “No,” he said, “we shan’t need much on that road.  And at its end, nothing.”
(from The Return of the King ~ J.R.R. Tolkien ~ English author ~ 1892-1973)

 

Travel light. Comb and toothbrush and no extra luggage.  Don’t loiter and make small talk with everyone you meet along the way.
(Luke 10:4 ~ The Message)

 

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Good Company

I left him at the coffee shop.  He’ll be by in a minute or two.

My old guitar playing friend, Panama hat on head, had just burst through the front door bringing with him a blast of June heat.  Frequently, he is accompanied by our preacher buddy, but that one was missing today.

I didn’t ask the question, but he felt the need to explain his absence.  Smiling, I told him we’d just have to make do with each other’s company until he got there.

We did just fine, settling most of the world’s problems in the next half hour.  It took that long for the preacher to arrive.  When he wandered in sheepishly, he looked at the guitar player with a hurt look.  Quietly, he asked a question.

“Where did you go?  I was just sitting there finishing my coffee, and it occurred to me that you were gone.”

The guitar player, as he is wont to do, laughed uproariously.  No apology was forthcoming, just a verbal jab about paying more attention, and it was forgotten.

Sweet fellowship comes in strange places, and with strange companions.

The preacher ministers in an organization not known for a big tent doctrine, yet he calls us his brothers.  The guitar player earns spending money playing in pubs and bar rooms, but calls my God his.

I’m not even sure how I came to be included in the circle, but included I am, never feeling the uneasiness of an outsider—not even for a moment.

As I write, I remember—just an evening ago it was—sitting at a table for hours with our old friends.  The Lovely Lady and I, along with two other couples, sat as we do every month sharing a meal.  We shared much more than food, as the laughter poured out, and then the tears were wiped away.

And God said, it is not good for the man to be alone.  (Genesis 2:18)

The companion He gave His friend—what else would you call a person you walk with in the cool of the evening?—was not only to ease the loneliness for the one man, but also to lend companionship to the millions who would come after.

What an astounding gift!

Think of it.  Of all the innovations which would come into existence over the centuries ahead, God decided the most important thing He could do for mankind was to give him companionship.

I have experienced the companionship of a wife.  It is indeed extraordinary.  Life-changing, even.  I wouldn’t trade a minute of the nearly forty years I’ve had with the Lovely Lady.  Still. . .

Still, friendship looms in my mind as one of the best things in life.  Better than fine cars; better than a wonderful house; better still than a huge bank account.

Sometimes friendships end in disaster.  It happened to the early followers of the Christ, you know.

The Apostle who wrote so many letters, my namesake, had a few friends who traveled with him on his early trips to establish churches.  The young man named John Mark was part of that group.

But.

Friendships go that way, you know.  The buts come into play.  Human nature being what it is, people disagree.  Some get hurt and take their toys to go home.

John Mark did just that, deserting his friends.  Later, when his uncle wanted to give him another chance, the Apostle suggested that his uncle might be better off somewhere else, too.  (Acts 15:37-39)

Friendships are broken.  How sad.  The sweet gift of companionship turns bitter and feels more like a punishment than a joy.  

The end.

Ah.  But, it’s not, is it?

Broken bridges can be rebuilt.  Lines of communication may be reopened.

Somehow though, in our culture, we teach folks to wash their hands and hearts of friends who have deserted us.  Don’t let them hurt you again, we admonish.

Good riddance!

And the Apostle sent word: Bring my young friend, John Mark back with you.  I need him.  He is useful to me in my ministry. (2 Timothy 4:11)

Reconciliation.

I need him.

There are no throw-away friendships. How do we toss away a gift from the Creator of all the universe?

Ah.  Our friendship with the people who sat around that table last night is a sacred thing.  Forty years or more, we go back.

But, I’ll tell you something else:  My friendship with those two who sat with me in my music store today is just as sacred.  We joke and we tell stories.  We get on each others’ nerves as we sharpen the rough edges away.

Gifts.

Let’s sing something.

friendsmakingmusicThe preacher suggested it today, as the guitar player sat in his tee-shirt strumming the shiny new acoustic. The button-up shirt had been removed (without embarrassment) to avoid scratching the glossy finish on the back.

After a few false starts, to get in the right key, the rich baritone voice of the preacher took the lead.  The guitar player, his full bass voice booming and his fingers flying, was right there with him.

I managed to harmonize on the tenor part a bit as the song progressed.

O come, angel band.  
Come and around me stand.  
Oh bear me away on your snow white wings, to my immortal home.  
Oh, bear me away on your snow white wings, to my immortal home.

There are moments when the light shines so brilliantly from above that I’m a little blinded.  It wasn’t beautiful music.

It was beautiful.

Every good gift—Every perfect gift—comes down from above, coming down from the Father of Lights. (James 1:17)

No argument tonight from this scribe.

Friendship.

It’ll do until something better comes along.

 

 

 
 
Yes’m, old friends is always best, ‘less you can catch a new one that’s fit to make an old one out of.
(Sarah Orne Jewett ~ American novelist/poet ~ 1849-1909
 

 

Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed.  If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble.
(Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 ~ NLT)

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Still Vanilla

We had an argument at the dinner table the other day.  Well, not so much an argument, as a discussion—No—It was an argument. 

I’m assuming some of you will want to weigh in, so you may get your keyboards and smart phones ready to make your comments.  We were arguing, strangely enough, about ice cream flavors.

I will admit to being no connoisseur of gourmet foods.  I am not a foody in any way. 

I eat food.  Real food. 

I’m not fooled by a little raspberry sauce drizzled around a dish so tiny you have to use the lowest section of your trifocals to find it on the plate.  Presentation has nothing to do with the meals I like. 

Flavor and texture.  Those are the most important attributes I’m seeking in the substances which pass my lips. 

For instance, corn on the cob, fresh from the garden, husked and boiled in water, with a little salt and butter added—now that’s real food.  Creamed corn?  Not at all!  While there is a slight corn-like flavor to the recipe, the dreadful mushy, slimy dish resembles corn not at all—to my palate. 

A fresh tomato is good for any number of things. 

Eaten by itself in wedges?  Sliced and laid atop a freshly grilled hamburger patty?  One of a few select ingredients in a plain dinner salad?  All wonderful conditions in which to consume the enigmatic fruit/vegetable. 

But, stewed and breaded?  I think the Valley Girl of the Seventies said it more delicately than I can put it: Gag me with a spoon!

You begin to see a pattern here, don’t you?  I like plain food.  The honest flavors and natural textures of foods are a treat to the palate and need very little embellishment. 

I think I’m what used to be called a meat and potatoes man.  I’ll eat those other dishes when they are on the menu; even enjoy them at times. 

But, for comfort food, for feeling all is right with the world, I’ll have the fried chicken with mashed potatoes, thank you!  Sure, a little white gravy will go nicely on the potatoes, but not too much. 

I want to taste the food I masticate.

Vanilla ice cream.
 
It’s what I prefer.  Actually, what I crave, since it’s not really supposed to be in my diet at all now. 

If you’ll promise not to tell the Lovely Lady, I will admit to having a serving of Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla just recently.  I had passed on it at dinner that day. 

But, it called my name for the rest of the day, so I answered.  Just a little. 

Vanilla is an amazing flavor. 

If you must know, it was the reason for the discussion at the dinner table. 

One of our guests refused the offer of this food-of-the-gods after our meal, with one word: Yuck! 

It was her contention that vanilla is plain, a non-flavor, if you will.  And, while there was a day I would have agreed with her assessment, I will readily confess now that I have seen the error of my ways. 

My sister-in-law (aided by her husband) creates an incredible home-made vanilla ice cream, the memory of which will make you want to spit out any Cookies and Cream you taste thereafter.  I have had Butter Pecan I thought was really good, but one spoonful of Aunt Jan’s homemade recipe drove away any fond thought of that plastic flavor which remained.

I’ve thought of this phenomenon numerous times, while consuming unseemly quantities of the fat-laden nectar.  I’m convinced that when we start to add flavors to the original, we begin a journey down a path leading to all kinds of excess which make us forget what we loved in the first place. 

A teaspoonful of chocolate syrup added today, turns into a couple of tablespoons the next time and before you know it, you’re consuming some substance unidentifiable as ice cream, with a name like Chocolate Chunky Peanut Butter Cookie Dough Nightmare, and wondering how you could have sunk so low. 

You may press “send” on those angry notes any time you are ready now. . .

What’s my point, you ask? 

As usual, I employ the ridiculous to illustrate this plain truth:  It is so simple to leave the path of clean, straightforward joys, mingling them with gaudy, overpowering extravagance, and before we know it, we no longer recognize the original product as real, or even as desirable.

Plain vanilla we call it, implying that it is somehow lacking. 

The concept holds true throughout our culture.  Clean cut, wholesome young men and women are replaced by Hollywood with surgically enhanced and painted caricatures with attitude problems.  A criminal record is a plus, not an embarrassment. 

If pets are important to you, it is no longer acceptable to just have a dog in the backyard, buying dry dog food at the local supermarket when they run out.  We must shop at stores which cater to the pet’s whims, offering amazingly expensive toys, clothes (yes, clothes!), and food.  Don’t leave that poor pooch alone at home all day!  Doggie Day Care is the only loving way to treat Fido in this culture! 

Families who enjoy the simple pleasures of spending time together playing at the park are replaced with the Madison Avenue image of the family who spends together at the amusement park, while wearing costly mouse ears and hugging imaginary princesses who have no interest in returning the adoration. 

Bigger, better, more flavor, more excitement—all these are desirable, while plain, clean, pure, and simple are pejoratives used to poke fun. 

The add-ons eclipse the original, making it seem obsolescent and passe’.

I’ll have two scoops of vanilla, please. 

I’m fairly sure that great things are more often accomplished by just plain folks.  Heroes are more likely to be normal people with simple values than they are to be the fake, embellished stars on television.  Honest and responsible young adults are reared in the homes of honest and responsible parents.

We follow Christ in simplicity and purity.  When the world intrudes, it’s only too easy to be distracted by the dressing and bling, forgetting that our path lies in a different direction.

He calls us to remember what first drew us into the way. 

On second thought, make that just one scoop.  (Watching my calories and fat intake, you see?) 

Still vanilla. 

It’s an amazing flavor. . .

 

 

But I have this complaint against you. You don’t love me or each other as you did at first!  Look how far you have fallen! Turn back to me and do the works you did at first.
(Revelation 2:4-5a ~ NLT)

 

“White,” Saruman sneered.  “It serves as but a beginning. The white cloth may be dyed, the white page may be overwritten, the white light may be broken.” “In which case, it is no longer white,”  Gandalf answered.  “And, he who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
(Lord of the Rings~J.R.R. Tolkien)

 

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
’tis the gift to come down where we ought to be…
(Simple Gifts~Elder Joseph Bracket~American Shaker songwriter~1797-1882)

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2016. All Rights Reserved.