Message from a Hypocritical Fake

It’s kind of hard for Mom to see the road when she has tears in her eyes.

Our house guests had been gone not even an hour when the text arrived on my phone.  I laughed.  And then, I wiped the tears from my own eyes. 

As we hugged and said our goodbyes that morning, the girls’ mom mentioned how sad it had been for her to be packing.  I understood.  Their days had been full of old friends and swimming, of family gatherings and sleep-overs.  They were leaving to go hundreds of miles away.

It is sad.  But, I have to tell you—it’s also joyful.

It’s what happens when we love people.

The homecomings are all laughter and excitement, the separation, tears and sadness.

In between, the sweet times of fellowship are a delight; the distance of disagreement—heartbreak.

Love keeps us coming back.  Again and again, the cycle is repeated.  

Joy, sadness.  Smiles, tears.

I know.  It’s hokey.  Sentimental slop.

But, that’s life.

Life is hokey.  It’s mushy.  It’s sloppy.

It’s horribly messy.  Horribly.

But, I’ll say this:  Better are tears wiped from the eyes while driving away than the voice of regret for never having come.

The memories of times, happy or sad, spent with loved ones are infinitely more to be treasured than the times passed in self-centered pursuits.  When, in the passing years, we sit and speak of the good times, we will remember occasions filled with voices and faces, laughter and tears.

The time we share with people is precious; hours wasted in the dark and quiet are hardly remembered at all, save with regret.

One could read the words I’ve scattered on this page and nod his or her head in affirmation, agreeing completely about time spent with family.  And yet, I stopped talking about family quite a way up the page.

The statement was: It’s what happens when we love people.  

Sad.  Joyful.

People.  

Family.  Neighbors.  Strangers.  Enemies.

People.

Being a writer, and working to make my articles more accessible has led me to visit and read more divergent views of faith and life than I once did.  There is a recent theme that has disappointed me, even worried me.

Why I Ditched the Church Scene (and why you should, too).

Folks who have been hurt, or seen sin in the lives of others, or had disagreements with leaders, are leaving the church in droves.  They are not going out to start a new fellowship.  They are ditching church altogether.

I wonder.  

I’ve said it before myself.  I don’t want to go to church today.

And, I will admit here for the first time publicly, in my head I have said it differently.  I don’t want to go to church ever again.

Not ever.

Do you know why I keep going to church, with all those hypocrites and fakes—with all those sinners?

They need me.  

pebbles-56435_640No, not because I’m so holy.  Not because I’m so wise.  They need me because I’ve got some rough edges that can bump against the rough edges they bring with them each week.  (Hebrews 10:24-25)

This hypocritical fake, who still has a problem with sin, loving them can do what humanity is intended to do.  Help them to be better people.

Help me to be a better person.

Is the church full of two-faced fakes?

Duh!

So is my music store.  So is the restaurant where I break bread.  So is the university where you got your degree.  We interact with them in those places, as well.

We are all flawed.  We all need help.

God gives it in the form of other flawed, helpless humans.  If we abandon them, we serve only ourselves.

And, in the end, if we serve only ourselves, we harm everyone.

Will there be tears?

Will there be unhappiness?

It is a certainty.  

What is also certain is that as we live in community, we learn to be the men and women God intended for us to be.

From each other.  By being with each other.

I said there will be tears and unhappiness.  There will also be great joy and celebration.

It’s what happens when we love people.

And God.

Some day, He’ll wipe those tears away Himself.  (Revelation 21:4)

For now, I’ve got a sleeve I can wipe them on.

 

 

 

Don’t cry because it’s over.  Smile because it happened.
(Anonymous ~ attributed to Dr. Seuss ~ American author ~  1904-1991)

 

 

 

Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works.  And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.
(Hebrews 10:24-25 ~ NLT)

 

 

 

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

Debt Piles Up

God will reward your generosity.

The words came unexpectedly.  I didn’t even know the man was paying attention to the transaction which had just occurred in the music store.

I’ve mentioned on several occasions, that with increasing regularity, opportunities pop up to help folks in less advantageous circumstances.  Believing that we have been put where we are with a better purpose than amassing wealth, I attempt to make a habit of helping when I can, usually in a mostly insignificant way.

“God will reward your generosity.”

Without thinking, I glanced up at the man in front of me.

“He already has.”  

I said the three words that came to me.  Nothing more.  A total of eight words were spoken on the subject.

We moved on to our business and the terse conversation was forgotten.

I think it needs to be revisited.  In a way, it actually was for me later in the day.

A customer from Pennsylvania called to request a CD we didn’t have.  I found a company which could provide it and walked the aging man through the process to purchase it on their website.

He was extremely grateful and said essentially the same thing the fellow in my store had earlier.

“God will bless you for this.”

I wonder.

All my life, I’ve listened to the talk of rewards and blessings.  I’m confused.  

God has given—given—us the magnificent gift of grace.  The penalty for our sins has been paid in full.  The gift of God is salvation, not of works, but by grace through faith.  It’s all Him.  All of it. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

And now, if all I do is obey Him, He owes me more?

If I love my neighbor, be he in my music store, or across the country in Philadelphia, I get to keep track of it and present the expense statement for repayment?

I don’t mean to be cynical and I certainly don’t mean to ruffle feathers.  Still, I’m looking for the day when we look at the good that others do and simply acknowledge it’s what we all should be doing all the time.

I want us to realize that our love for each other is simply servicing a debt we owe to a Creator who loves us more than words can express.

It’s a debt that can never be paid off.  

Never.

I want to be very clear.  God owes me nothing.  

If I did nothing but good for those around me until the instant of my death, there would never be a hint of any blessing owed me in the ledger kept for such things.  Not a feather’s weight would tip the scale in my favor.

I owe Him everything.  I always will.

It is true for every saint and sinner who ever walked this dusty earth.

We owe.

But, understand this as well.  He never forces us to lift a finger in repayment of the debt.

His love though—His love—makes us into people who cannot help but recognize the claim He has on our actions and attitudes.

We love.  Because He loved us first, we love. (1 John 4:19)

Period.

Blessed?  Beyond any ability of man to describe.

Rewarded? In ways I will never know—so far out of balance to what I owe.

I owe.  Maybe you do too.

We need to be paying up every day we live.  Without coercion and without a profit motive on our part, we should give.  God loves a cheerful giver.  (2 Corinthians 9:7

beggar-1016678_640We pay on our love debt by helping others.  It’s the way the system is designed to work.  

The world is sitting with their hands out, waiting for them to be filled.

It’s time for us to pay up.

He’s already blessed us for it.

 

 

 

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.
(Romans 13:8 ~ NIV

 

The world does not understand theology and dogma, but it understands love and sympathy.
(Dwight L Moody ~ American evangelist/pastor ~ 1837-1899)

 

 

 

 

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

I Like Mike

The big man looked uncomfortable, waiting there on the sidewalk for me.  I don’t suppose he could have been waiting too long.  

was mowing my lawn, focusing on keeping the lines straight, but I could hardly have missed him for even one pass of the lawn.  

He waved a big, ham-sized hand at me when he knew I had seen him—a clear message he wanted me to stop and talk with him.  

Never one to miss an opportunity to shirk my lawn tending labors, I complied.

“Do you have a power screwdriver I could borrow?”  

The question seemed a little odd.  

I looked around, but saw no car or, for that matter, any other indication of which direction the unfamiliar man had come from.  I don’t normally loan tools to strangers walking down the street, so I looked back at him and wondered aloud what he needed the tool for.  

He waved that same large hand over his shoulder and explained sheepishly:

“I’m visiting my mother-in-law up there, and was backing out of her driveway, but I hit the mailbox across the street.”

Glancing up the direction he indicated, I saw the mailbox lying on the grass and nodded.  

“No one is home and I want to fix it, but I don’t have any tools at the house at all.”  He thought for a minute as if to be sure he wanted to say the next words.  

“I’ll pay you.”

I brushed aside his offer and told him I wouldn’t take money for helping neighbors.  Leaving the mower where it sat, I went inside and grabbed my handy-dandy battery-powered screwdriver, with attachments.  

damagedmailboxHeading across the street to where he was standing by then, I spent the next half hour reconstructing the mailbox with him.  We talked as we labored, making the short job go by even more quickly.  

Mike is a rough-cut retired trucker, who understands that neighbors are high up on the scale of significant people, even when he is not in his own neighborhood.  

I liked him.  

We laughed as we worked and sweated in the hot sun, enjoying the camaraderie which comes from accomplishing a worthwhile task together.

I bent down to put away my tools and as I stood again, he stuck out that big hand to shake mine, which was completely engulfed in his grip.  As I took my hand away and looked down at it, I saw he had left a ten dollar bill in my palm.

“No.  I’m just helping a neighbor, too,”  I protested.

He wasn’t listening.  “You didn’t have to help me, but you did.  Thanks.”  

I shoved the bill in my pocket, telling him as I did that I would pass it on to someone else who needed it worse than I.  He nodded, smiling, and waved, a huge gesture in the air above his head, as he walked toward his mother-in-law’s front door.  

I headed back across the street to start my mower again, still grinning to myself.  But, somehow, there was the shadow of a negative thought gnawing at the back of my brain.

I saw another mailbox in my head, years ago–now where did that come from?

Oh, yes.  Thirty -five years ago, it was.

“He just knocked it over!  Never told anyone–just drove away.”  

The irate voice on the telephone belonged to a lady I knew only slightly.  She had attended our church off and on—more off than on at the time.  

I asked for more information to fill in the gaps and fill them in, she did.  

“That preacher came and got the church bus last night.  It’s parked right next door, you know.  Well, when he backed out, he hit the mailbox across the street.  He knew he did it too, because he got out and looked at the back of the bus.  Then he glanced around to make sure no one saw him, got back in, and drove away.”  

Obviously, she was angry–with good reason.  I didn’t know what to tell her.

Thirty-five years later, I still don’t.  

And, that’s the reason for my pesky negative thoughts, as I consider my new friend Mike and his actions that hot summer day.  

You see, Mike isn’t an intellectual man, hasn’t spent a lifetime studying the scriptures, but he understands that neighbors are important people.  

No one saw him back into the mailbox.  He won’t be back to visit for months, yet he wouldn’t think about driving away without making amends for his accident.

The preacher, on the other hand, had all the knowledge necessary to understand, without any ambiguity, what was required of him.  

What made him drive away instead?  Was it arrogance?  Fear?  Impatience?  Did he just have more important things to do?  

I can’t answer the questions.  

And, maybe that’s a good thing, since it keeps me from pointing my finger too squarely at him.

I do know more is required of me.  I know more is required of each of us.

I wonder if I need to clarify that we are no longer talking about mailboxes and next-door neighbors.  That is a tiny part of it, but there is a much bigger picture.  

The cautionary tale of the old truck driver and the preacher should serve to knock apart any preconceived notions we may have about who really understands right and wrong.

If God’s love hasn’t reached into the depths of our hearts, what comes to the surface, embodied in our actions, will be ungodly, regardless of our claims of a personal relationship with Him.  (Luke 16:10-15)

A degree in theology scribbled behind our name doesn’t void this; a lifetime spent in church won’t alter it.

Only a clear sense of our own debt to love can lead to the realization that we must–absolutely must–extend that same love to our neighbor.  

I’m pretty sure that if they breathe the same air I breathe, they are my neighbors.  

There is no human being to whom I do not owe the great debt of love.  Not one.

I’ve backed over some mailboxes myself.  

Okay, not actually mailboxes.  But still, I’ve done a good deal of damage in my lifetime.  I’ve driven away time and again without a backward look.

No more.

I want to be like Mike.

How about it?  I wonder if someone out there has a tool or two that I could borrow.  

Maybe, if I ask a friend,  I could even get a helping hand.

I’m asking.

 



But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

(Luke 10:29~NIV)



Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.

(from The Weight of Glory ~ C.S. Lewis~English educator/author~1898-1963)

 

 

 

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

Away From the Light

The choral professor sat on the stool in the music store, one afternoon decades ago, choosing his words with care.

“I teach on a campus filled with light.  Where is the darkness into which I’m to shine?”

I didn’t know the answer.  I did know one thing:

I didn’t like where the conversation was headed.

I like the light.  It’s where I’m most comfortable.  I can rest easy; cares and worries don’t touch me there.

Dark is dismal.  It’s frightening.  There are unknown creatures in the dark—terrors I can feel, but cannot see.

And yet, the dark is where we’re called to minister.

The music professor didn’t stop with asking the question.  I was sure he wouldn’t.

He packed up his family and found a dark place in which to shine his light many miles away from the comfort and clarity of his former life.  Instead of the city of light at which he had served, he was forced to shine his lonely light on the pathway in a place where almost no one carried any light at all.

It has been many years since the conversation.  The professor has long since passed over into that place where light is ever shining.

Can you imagine how brightly his light shined in that dark place?  Think how dramatic the distinction must have been!  A match lit in pitch-black darkness can seem almost blinding.

His words still haunt my thoughts.

No great quest is ever played out in the light of day.  Darkness—that’s where fierce battles are waged.

The blackest holes imaginable are the delivery rooms for the most brilliant of all victories.

And yet, we don’t begin our journey from those black pits.  No.  From homes blazing in light and meeting places shining with the brilliance of the sun at its apex, we must set out.

lanternWith conscious forethought we turn our backs on the light places and stride into the darkness, carrying only the light we’ve been given.

It’s a frightening journey—no part more terrifying than the first step we take.

And yet, the path through the darkness is of utmost importance.

Our destination has never been on this side of the darkness, but always on the other.  We are bound for a better place, but there is ground to be covered before we arrive there.

The inhabitants of this dark world will never know the meaning of God’s light if not for us in their presence.  Those who stumble through the darkness will never see light if we never walk beside them.

We are the lamps set on the lamp stand, not under the basket.  (Matthew 5:15)

We are the stars that shine in the universe.  (Philippians 2:15)

We know that darkness and evil are the hallmarks of existence in a fallen world.  Yet somehow, our spirits quell at the prospect of leaving these places of light our Creator has privileged us to experience.

In a sense, you might say light is dangerous.  We humans are gluttons, never satisfied with what we need, but demanding what we want.  

We would stay in the light, soaking it all up ourselves for a lifetime, if we could.  Indeed, some of us never set foot outside our fortresses of illumination.

The day will come—it will—when all is light.  Until that day, we shine as His lights in the blackness of an ever-darkening world.

If we don’t, who will?

Backs to the light, we carry the light into a world that cries out without any clue of what it needs.  In desperation—and darkness—they seek first one way, then another, for that which we hold in our hands.

It’s not our light.  There is enough of it to illuminate the pathway ahead, but it shines to draw those around us.

To Him.  The light draws them to Him.

A borrowed light. And yet, it shines through us.

We, who have been brought into the light of day, are sent back into the darkest, deepest night.

Dare the quest!  

Take the leap!  

By far, more is lost in basking comfortably in the sanctuary of light and warmth than by venturing forth into the dark unknown.

The world around us is getting darker.  We can see it happening.

The light will be the brighter for it.

It’s time to turn our backs to the light.

It’s time for us to journey toward the light.

And, yet for all the leaving from and journeying toward, we walk in the light.

Still.

 

 

 

…if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.
(1 John 1:7 ~ NASB)

 

Torment in the dark was the danger that I feared, and it did not hold me back. But I would have never come, had I known the danger of light and joy.
(The Fellowship of the Ring ~ J.R.R. Tolkien ~ English novelist ~ 1892-1973)

 

So carry your candle, run to the darkness
Seek out the helpless, confused and torn
Hold out your candle for all to see it
Take your candle, and go light your world.
Take your candle, and go light your world.
(Go Light Your World ~ Chris Rice ~ American singer/songwriter)

 

 

 

 

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

He Still Hangs the Moon

The cares of this life are thieves.  They rob from us while we watch, eyes trained on their every move.

I wish I could tell you I am too much a veteran of their schemes to be taken in anymore.  At this time of life one would imagine experience has taught me its lessons, and all danger of being victimized is past.

One would be wrong.

For some time now, I have allowed those rascally cares to run amok in my soul, robbing me blind.

Really.  Blind.

It is what they crave.  The little creations of our tiny imaginations and self-centered natures are themselves blind to the reality of joy that fills our lives as humans made in the image of a loving God.

And, you know what they say.

Well, the red-headed lady who raised me said it all the time anyway, so I assume it must be true:

Misery loves company.

If the little monsters can’t see joy and truth, they are determined to steal the ability from anyone foolish enough to afford them shelter and sustenance.

And so, with my permission, they have been at work again in my own soul.

At times when they work their craft, the darkness is profound.  The black of this night is, I think, made all the more encompassing by my willing participation in the malfeasance.

An evening or two ago, as light shone brightly—too brightly for me—in my house, I crept to my office to let the thieves practice.  While the Lovely Lady and our guests worked and laughed and played happy music, I sat alone in the dark and pulled the misery over me like a blanket.

After the lights were finally extinguished at the house and all were asleep in their beds I left my office and, blindly walking hand in hand with the little unseeing pickpockets, headed toward home.

Three words.  Really.  Just three.

I know folks who hear a voice that speaks whole volumes.  Entire poems.  Sometimes, they carry on conversations with the voice.

Me?  I get three words.

Lift your head.

I know.  It seems a bit inadequate, doesn’t it?  It’s kind of like saying chin up to a guy heading to the gas chamber.

Lift your head.

Then I noticed it.  All around me, in what is normally a pitch black yard, the air fairly glowed with light.  Long shadows were cast by the tree branches above me.

I lifted my head.

The brilliant and huge full moon hung almost directly above, washing the night time world in its reflected light.  It was astoundingly beautiful.

He still hangmoon-1055395_640s the moon.  Every night.

He still wakes the sun every morning and sends it on its daily rounds.

I’ll admit it.  The notion isn’t all that scientific, nor is it an accurate description of what actually takes place.

Still, it is His power that keeps all of creation doing what it was designed for.  (Colossians 1: 6-17)

The realization struck me as powerfully as those beams of light had just seconds before.

His plan is still in place.  I’m part of that plan.

I’m part of that plan!

Every one of us is.

I looked back down to check on my cares, but all the little felons had disappeared.  They can’t stand to be in the company of light.  Just as in nature, the darkness of doubt and despair flees at the coming of light.

I’m not naive.  Darkness will come again.  It always does.

Cares will crowd around to steal again.  They always do.

But the truth is, light will come again as well.

It always does.

He still hangs the moon.

And, not just for me.

Lift your head.

 

 

 

But you, Lord, are a shield around me,
    my glory, the One who lifts my head high.
(Psalm 3:3 ~ NIV)

 

 

‘Now, lord,’ said Gandalf, ‘look out upon your land! Breathe the free air again!’

. . .Suddenly through a rent in the clouds behind them a shaft of sun stabbed down. The falling showers gleamed like silver, and far away the river glittered like a shimmering glass.

‘It is not so dark here,’ said Théoden.
(from The Two Towers ~ J.R.R. Tolkien ~ English novelist/poet ~ 1892-1973)

 

 

 

 

 

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

Ancient Passage

It didn’t seem the most intelligent course of action.  Then again, I didn’t think there was an option.

The Lovely Lady and I had taken a lovely drive along the mountaintops in southern Oklahoma and, realizing we were near an interesting old steel bridge, made a slight detour off the highway to get a photograph or two.  I assumed we would find a place to park on the near side of the structure and would walk over it, rather than driving.

The structure is, after all, nearly one hundred years old.  On the day it was completed in 1920, likely the only vehicles to cross it were a few horse drawn wagons and a Ford Model T or two.

The Model T weighed just over half a ton.

The comfy big pickup truck the Lovely Lady and I were driving tops out at just over two and a half tons.  I didn’t really want to test the bridge.

It was unsettling to drive up the approach to the old metal truss bridge and realize there was no place to park.  We reached the first span and I thought momentarily about backing the nearly three hundred feet to the closest turn off.

But, I’m a man.  Men don’t back up when they can go forward.

2016-07-03 14.22.45-2We went forward—over the rickety, rusty old bridge.  As we drove over it, the Lovely Lady read the results from the last inspection performed by the state.

“It says the substructure is rated only 2 out of 9 points—critical.  ‘Structurally deficient.’  Do you think we should be doing. . .”

Her voice trailed off, as we almost crawled across the river.

The steel and concrete span held our weight, but we held our breath until we were on solid ground again.

Almost a hundred years old, the man-made bridge has very nearly reached the end of its useful life.

Nearly done.

The thought of it makes me sad.

I’ve told you before how much I love bridges.  You may already know that the walls of our den hold nothing but paintings of the  wonderful structures.

In this room full of paintings depicting bridges, it is probably the least likely2016-07-16 00.23.27 piece of artwork to draw the eye.

I usually gravitate to the complicated designs, preferring to consider the concepts and scientific knowledge required to construct such strong, yet beautiful, framework.

This is not one of those.

The little bridge in the old watercolor is merely a solid piece of granite, hewn, not by human hands, but by the Creator Himself.  The form it retains today is largely the same form it had when it was laid over the muddy brown stream nearly five-hundred years ago.

It is a real bridge, still spanning the brook it crossed all those years ago.

A solid foundation lies under each end of the clapper stone bridge.  Two flat pieces of granite, possibly quarried from the same location as the arched bridge itself, have stood, unmoved, through five centuries.

The old structure has carried carts and foot traffic of all sorts—human and otherwise—safely across the brook.  In the spring floods, when the muddy brown water roared and whirled beneath it, safe passage was a guarantee.  Even when the flow of the brook is reduced to a trickle, the ancient piece of stone gives assurance of certain transit from one side of the little valley to the other.

But, like the much younger, fabricated bridge we crossed the other day, this bridge will one day (many years hence, one would hope) fail.  The flood may wash it off its foundation, or a crack may develop, the resulting fall of the stone into the brook bringing to an end its usefulness to mankind.

Again, the thought of it makes me sad.

All that man has established will, one day, come to nothing.

All of it.

There is one Bridge, though.  One Stone, laid by the hand of God Himself.

Eons ago, the words were spoken.  Today, they are still true:

Look!  I am laying a stone, firm and tested.  It is a priceless foundation that will never fail.  Whoever trusts it will never be disappointed.  (Isaiah 28:16)

A Bridge, laid across the gorge of destruction by the Creator—never to be removed—never to be inspected and declared structurally deficient.

It’s not complicated.  There are no angles.  No girders.  No need for advanced mathematics.

Just a plain Stone and an invitation to cross.

And, all we have to do is trust it to hold us.

Go ahead.  Take the first step.

You can hold your breath if you need to.

He will hold us.

Forever.

 

 

 

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(Romans 8:38-39 ~ NIV)

 

 

The time worn granite clapper bridge
Spans the peat stained moorland brook,
The Dipper bobs as it hunts the midge
People cross with no second look.

Feet from ages long, long past
Have trod across the trusted stone,
The dawn and dusk have shadows cast
The sun has shone and cruel winds blown.

Men have come with brush in hand
To paint the scene through expert eye,
People followed to this desolate land
In search of something they know not why.

The rook as it sits in the solitary tree
Looks down on all that pass below,
He knows the secrets of you and me
And silently lets us cross the moorland flow.
(The Lonely Clapper ~ Anonymous)

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

Crying In the Open

I never knew him.

The same could be said of many whose voices have fallen on my ears—whose hands I have shaken—whose eyes I’ve looked into.

Him, I never spoke with—never laid eyes on.  

The young African-American man was moved by an article I wrote and was kind enough to send a note telling me so.  We were connected only by the information superhighway, a mode of transport that never brought us closer than a note here, a click of the “like” button there.

Friends, they call it.

As if applying the label could tie the cords to bind individuals together.  As if we could struggle past our differences in locale and in community.  

He was a student of the martial arts; I a student of classical music.  He was city through and through; I lock my doors to my car on the outskirts of any urban center, unlocking them only when there is no other choice or I have passed the city limits sign on the other side.

And yet, it seemed there was something there—a connection of sorts.

Tears filled my eyes on the day he wrote the words, “He’s gone.  Sitting right across the table from me, and he dropped dead.”

His best friend had died of a massive heart attack as they sat eating and joking.  He never got over it.

I wrote a note, which he acknowledged.  We exchanged other notes, but they were vague and disconnected.  Something had changed.

A few months later, I was shocked to read the words from a relative in a message to the young man’s online friends.

“Tonight, he decided there was nothing left worth living for.  I’m sorry to have to tell you this way.  Thanks for being his friends.”

I know.  I cry too easily.  This was different.

A friend died, his life ended before he was a quarter of a century old.

I never knew him.  

Still, he was my friend, my brother.  The tears flowed.

They fill my eyes even now.

Can I tell you something?  Even if I had never exchanged a word with him, we would have been connected.  Even if his name had never been in the listing of friends I had made in my social network, it would be true.

If I haven’t made it clear enough before in my writing, let me say it again here:

We are all connected.  All.

There was one Man who insisted on it.  At the crossroads of history He stood and said, “If I do this—if I allow myself to be the sacrifice—it will be for every human whose heart beats within his breast.  I will draw all men to myself.”  (John 12:32)

I am not a universalist.  Many who are drawn will not come.  I know that.

And yet, what if all that is standing between one who is drawn and the Man-God I claim to follow is me?  

Or what if—on the flip side of the coin—what if I’m the one who will help that one who is drawn to make up his or her mind?

If I say I love God, but do not love my brother, I am a liar.  The truth is not to be found in me. (1 John 4:20)

I watch with horror as the barriers are being erected.  High and strong, the walls are being fortified.

gun-1210396_640Brothers dwell within every fortification, but few will venture out from behind their safety.  Few can abandon their petty claims—to hold out a hand in friendship, to embrace family.

Family.

We argue about words and slogans, while people die.  We insist on our version of truth while souls hang in the balance.

I’m convinced we will meet again one day, where no barrier stands.  Together, beyond that dividing line between this earthly existence and eternity in Heaven, we’ll stand and will weep as we realize the powerful truth of His words.

All men.  Black, white, brown—called out of every nation, every tribe.  

Drawn to Him—away from worship of false gods, from following false prophets, from teaching false doctrines.

We’ll weep until He wipes away the tears from our eyes Himself.

I said earlier that I cry too easily.  I wonder.

Perhaps we need to cry more while we’re here, not less.

My young friend who abandoned hope sat and listened to music right before he took his last breath.  Missing his friend who had died before his eyes, he thought he heard in the words of the song an invitation to join him.

Perhaps, it seemed easier than walking a difficult, lonely road without him.

Another young friend, who also has known the horrible pain and emptiness of losing someone he loves, wrote recently of his struggle to comprehend a God who allows such things.

He has reached the conclusion—not lightly nor easily—that likely, it’s our understanding of God that is flawed and not the other way around.  

We build a box and stuff God in it, much as we do with people.

Neither will stay in the boxes we have built.

He is too big.

People are too stubborn.

And yet, out in the open seems dangerous, doesn’t it?  Too exposed, too brightly lit, too vulnerable. 

But we’ve tried hiding.  It achieves nothing lasting, leaving only suspicion and hatred.

Perhaps, it’s time to try openness.  

There’s more room for hugging and handshakes out here.

There will even be some tears.

Somehow, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

 

 

 

 

So let the light guide your way, yeah
Hold every memory as you go
And every road you take, will always lead you home, home

It’s been a long day without you, my friend
And I’ll tell you all about it when I see you again
We’ve come a long way from where we began
Oh, I’ll tell you all about it when I see you again
When I see you again.
(See You Again ~ Franks, Puth, Thomaz ~ 2014)

 

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 133 ~ NLT)

 

 

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

Sacred & Profane

The little towhead stood at the curb, library book in hand, looking first up one way and then down the other.  Seeing no cars, he trotted across the blacktop on the naked soles of his bare feet.

Once safely across the street, the scruffy boy wandered, aimlessly some would have thought, along the row of citrus trees.

oranges-1117501_640It wasn’t aimless.  He had a target in mind, one specific tree with the sweetest fruit in the little orchard.  Three trees from the end, he stopped and ducked under the low-hanging limbs, heavy with brightly colored oranges.

No low-hanging fruit for him.  This kid had a spot in mind—one in which he could spend the next couple of hours in his quiet and private pursuit of two of his favorite activities:  Reading and eating oranges.

Of course he knew he shouldn’t eat oranges while reading library books.  The day would come when he would face the consequences of that transgression, but it wouldn’t be on this day.

Tucking the book inside his shirt, he shinnied up the bole of the tree until he found the little nest he had arranged the day before.  Sitting on one sturdy limb, feet propped against another, and his back resting against the narrowing trunk, he settled in for an afternoon of delicious adventure with Tom Swift and his fantastic inventions.

But first, he reached out for an orange.  Hmmm—there weren’t as many within easy reach as there had been yesterday.  Oh well.  He sighted a couple in front of him, and twisting his neck a little, a bunch more right behind.  He snagged the two in front.  The others would come later.

Was there ever anything quite so delicious as a sweet, freshly picked orange, eaten while sitting in the tree from which it came?  

The two oranges were fantastic.  So sweet and such a burst of flavor—he sighed with content and was immediately lost in his book.  The second of the two followed the first without him even thinking about it.

Somewhere around chapter three, just as Tom and Bud were headed for the rocket launchpad, the juice-drizzled urchin realized he was empty handed except for the book he held.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw one of the yellow-orange orbs hanging above and behind him.  Reaching back and plucking it handily, he began to remove the peel.

It felt different.  The other fruit had been smooth, with a thin skin.  This one was rough and pebbly and had a thick layer of that useless white pith under the orange outer skin.

Well, at least it wasn’t rotten.  There weren’t any holes to indicate wasps had bored into it.  It came from the tree with the sweetest fruit he could remember finding.  He wasn’t going to let a little rough peel detract from his enjoyment.

By this time, Tom and his friends were in Outer Space, orbiting the earth and working on an experiment which, no doubt, would explode and start a chain reaction that only Tom’s newest invention could halt.

The kid with orange peel under his finger nails bit into the orange wedge he had just freed from the strange peel.

Oh!  Wow!  Sour!  Triple Wow!

He couldn’t spit the pulpy mass out of his mouth quickly enough.  It was horrendous!

Tom Swift and his precarious mission forgotten, the little sun-bleached blond head swiveled around to view the other fruit behind him.  

Every single one of the oranges back there were the same.  Sour oranges!

He looked down below to see where that branch grew from.  Surely it was a different tree, sprung up beside the good one.

It wasn’t.  

From the same tree those fantastically delicious, sweet fruit had been taken grew the hideous, mouth-puckering sour bits of vegetation.  Of course, at his young age, he had no knowledge of tree grafts and how they could grow out so the sweet fruit would be produced on one side of the graft and the sour on the other.  He wouldn’t have cared one bit.

All the unhappy kid knew was that he was going to find another spot to finish his book.

He also needed another sweet orange as quickly as possible—to take the horrible taste of that last one from his palate.

The boy is a man now, long past his youth.

He doesn’t climb orange trees anymore.

Still, he does find trees that yield both good and bad fruit.  It seems there are more around than ever before.  

Sometimes, it’s his own tree.  Sweet and sour.

It’s no surprise that we’re talking about different kind of fruit, is it?

I’m not the first one to write about this strange fruit.

Blessings and curses from the same tree. Sweet and bitter water from the same spring of water.  (James 3:9-12)

Our world resounds with the words.  

Love mixed with hatred.  Concern juxtaposed with disdain.

Sacred and profane.  From the same source.

It ought not to be.

Did you know that an orange tree which begins to produce sour oranges with the sweet will soon produce nothing but sour oranges?  It becomes useless to the farmer.

Useless.  Fit only to be uprooted and replaced.

Even Tom Swift didn’t have a cure for that.

Only the Creator can change the heart.  

Of the tree.

And the man.

 

 

 

For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
    so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
(Psalm 103:11-12 ~ NIV)

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

 

Two Sides

Starts. 
Stops.
I write words.
They’re not right.

Peace.
Fear.
I claim one.
One claims me.

Justice.
Violence.
In my prayers.
Still it preys.

Love.
Fear.
It casts out.
Outcasts makes.

Love.    
Fear.
It casts out.
Outcasts makes.

Love.

 

 

Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without, and know we cannot live within.
(James Arthur Baldwin ~ American playwright/social critic ~ 1924-1987)

 

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.
And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
(1 John 4:18-21 ~ NIV)

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

I Remember Peace

They were kind enough to invite me to ride with them recently.  The seasoned riders have trekked many miles together in the years I’ve been aware of them.

I usually ride alone.  

It’s not that I don’t like being with people, but simply that the logistics are less complicated when I’m the only one who has to agree to the time and length of ride.  

It would be just another ride for me, I thought, but one spent in a group of men who, like me, enjoyed the spinning of the crank and wind of freedom blowing on their faces.  

I never expected to be transported back fifty years as I rode.

It was my own fault really.  One kind member of the group, noticing my problem, rode beside me for a few moments and explained the theory I obviously didn’t grasp.

“You don’t ride much with groups, do you?  If you’ll stay with the other riders, the ride will be a lot easier.”

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to understand his meaning.  Riding in a group reduces the effect of the wind, making the ride much less taxing.  One has only to watch a professional bicycle racing team to grasp the idea.  Drafting, following each other closely, is only a part of the benefit.

I never have been good at that—staying with the group.  I’ve got my own ideas of what works, what corners to turn, how fast to ride on the downhills, and how hard to pedal up the steep slopes.  But, perhaps the kind fellow is right.

I tried to follow his advice—really, I did.  

But, they went slower than I wanted on the downhill parts.  Then they went faster than I was ready to try on the uphill sections.

And, besides that, my mind was already a thousand miles away and fifty years in the past.

I guess I’ve always done it—ridden at my own pace.  Still, the fear that knotted my insides on that long-ago day should have taught me a lesson to remember for life.  

There were usually at least five of us who rode together—sometimes more.  Through neighborhoods and across fields, down into canals and over levees, we pedaled our nondescript bikes.  Brothers, neighbors, schoolmates—it didn’t matter.  Whoever wanted to ride went along.

I heard the voices calling and jerked back from my daydreaming.

Oye vato!

The four young men standing at the corner toward which I was heading had suddenly become aware of my presence.  It took only an instant for me to realize what was going on.

As I was riding ahead of the group of ragtag boys, I had turned the corner into La Paloma without knowing it.  La Paloma was a barrio, or neighborhood, in my hometown famous for the gang that wandered its streets.  It has gotten much worse since my childhood, but even then, we knew better than to meander down its avenues idly.

The young men were headed into the street, coming straight for me.  I remembered passing someone at the corner behind as well, and glanced back.  Sure enough, he had moved onto the pavement, blocking my quick escape that way.

I was terrified.  No other word describes it.  

Terror.

I was also alone.  I can only imagine the conversation of my comrades as they gathered around the corner, just outside the neighborhood.

Can you believe he went in there?  What was the idiot thinking?  I’m not going in!  No way!

Fortunately for me, they didn’t take long to decide that somebody had to come in after the idiot.  Just in time, all of them came riding around the corner, about the moment I was trying to decide which one of the guys in front of me I might be able to knock over if I rode at him full speed.  I never found out.

As soon as the rest of the group came into view, the other boys moved back onto the verge of the parking area and simply watched us ride past.  

We rode, nonchalantly and quietly, down the street, turning the corner and riding straight home.  After fifty years, my heart still beats a little faster, remembering the fear, but also the relief.

To this day, I remember the peace that rode around the corner with those brothers and friends.  We weren’t out of danger—not by a long shot—but the relief I felt was almost palpable. 

One might think the lesson I learned on that day was of strength in numbers.  I know the truth of that, but it’s not what I remember.

I remember peace.  While still in danger, I felt peace, full and complete.

Odd, isn’t it?  The name of the barrio and its gang, La Paloma, means The Dove.  Thoughout time, the dove has been a powerful symbol of peace.  And there, in frightening circumstances, with disaster just moments away, peace fell over this young boy.

In danger, peace lives, unafraid.

Peace is not the absence of danger, but it is the assurance of safety.

Perhaps I’m not the only one who feels the danger crouching outside my door today.  I hear it in the words, see it in the eyes of both friends and acquaintances. Fear can stalk us as we see death take those we know and love.  Terror is set to spring as the world around us grows more unfamiliar and threatening.

And yet, the Savior told us He was leaving us peace.  It’s not the peace the world craves—the complete absence of danger and of conflict of any kind, but is a peace that supports in the middle of the storm.  (John 14:27)

He was about to be tortured, tried in court, and put to death.  And, He told His followers not to be troubled and afraid.  Their world was about to crash down around their shoulders and they were to continue on with peace in their souls.

It doesn’t make sense. It never has from a human perspective.

2016-07-02 17.27.40-2Once in awhile, the Lovely Lady and I feel the need to retreat.  The world presses in, its cares overwhelming the spirit.  Last weekend, we went to the mountaintop for a day or two.

We stood, overlooking the world below and heard the wind blow gently over the treetops.  In quietness, God speaks eloquently to our spirits.

Creation reminds us that our Creator is as He has always been.

We walked the hillsides of a green valley in the morning, as raindrops began to fall.  The sound of the water from heaven on the canopy of leaves and pine needles above soothed the hurts and fears in our souls.

Ah, sweet peace.

The solitude reminded me that peace has already been given us long ago.  We have only to remember where our strength comes from and realization of our certain salvation is renewed.

The psalmist wrote of it in his own contemplation.  I lift my eyes up to the hills and I realize where my strength comes from.  It comes from God the Creator, who made the heavens and the earth. (Psalm 121:1-2

Not only in the quiet, but in the hubbub, in the tormented days, and the fear-laden nights, peace can be ours.

Not only ours, peace can reign.  In our very beings, the terror is silenced, the fear put to flight.  Peace reigns.  (Colossians 3:15)

When all about us, men whisper of danger and terror in the dark, we don’t disagree.  They do exist.  They do have power.  

But, our safety is not in weapons, not in hoarded wealth, nor even in governments.  The peace those bring isn’t peace at all.  It never has been and never will be.

Peace comes only from the Giver of all good gifts.

Safety itself is ours.

Even when we ride ahead of the pack.

 

 

 

The Dove, on silver pinions
Winged her peaceful way.
(from The Pelican Island ~ James Montgomery ~ Scottish poet/hymnwriter ~ 1771-1854)

 

 

I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid.
(John 14:27 ~ NLT)

 

 

 

 

 

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