What if my Best Isn’t?

Don’t you know that’s a youth song?  You sang it like an old hymn!

The silver-haired lady didn’t actually shake her finger in my face, but I had a vision of it being waggled there.

I almost laughed.  It was an old hymn.  To me, it was.  Why—right there on the page, beside the author’s name, it told when he wrote it.  1902.  

Really. 1902

It was an old song.  For old people.

Then I read the words again.  And again.

Give of your best to the master.
Give of the strength of your youth.

I apologized to the dear saint.  The next time I led it, with the Lovely Lady accompanying me, we sang the song with a tad more pep, and just a little more vigor.

I learned a lesson that day.  It’s profound.  You’ll want to save this.

Old people were young once.

Most of them still remember it.  Some, vividly.

I know young Timothy’s instructor didn’t mean for me to take it this way, but I can’t help but think it.

Let no man despise your youth.  (1 Timothy 4:12)

It is disrespectful to the aging and elderly for us to disregard the experiences they had as young folks.  The things that shaped the adults they would become haven’t diminished in importance in all the ensuing years.

It is a youth song.  Written in 1902.

I dare not speed on past without revisiting the words our old friend, my namesake, had to say to his youthful protegé, though.

Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. (1 Timothy 4:12

I wonder how many times a day I hear—or read—disparaging words directed at the younger generation.  The generalizations are rampant, the vitriol nearly universal.

All coming from old folks.  Okay, aging folks.  People who once were young themselves.  People who can’t stand to have the days of their own youth ridiculed.

I’ve done it myself.  

These kids today. . .

I repent.
                              

A young friend sent me an invitation a few weeks ago.  The local university, as it has for a number of years, was sponsoring an evening dedicated to promoting writing and the arts in a faith-based environment.

I glanced at the two guests who were on the schedule.  A comic-book illustrator and a spoken-word artist.

Lightweights!  This is what passes for writing and art?  Pass.

I repent.  Did I say that already?  It doesn’t matter.  I may do so again.

The Lovely Lady encouraged me to go.  Friends were going to be there.  There was ice cream.

I went.  Don’t tell the friends, but the ice cream is what tipped the scales (no pun intended).

May I tell you what happened?  

Surrounded by young folks who could be my grandchildren, I saw respect.  They were attentive.  They were appreciative.

My eyes were opened.  Well, when they weren’t filled with tears, they were opened.  The tears were a surprise.

I detest spoken-word poetry.  All angst and anger and foul language, it falls somewhere on a scale with rap music, without the music.

I thought.

The young man, in his jeans and untucked shirt, skull-cap pulled over his head tightly, looked for all the world like a street punk to this old man’s eyes.

I sat back, arms folded across my chest, and dared him to move me.

I dared him.

He moved me.  

No.  That’s not right.

The Spirit moved me.

It was all I could do, when the young poet, arms windmilling above his head and waggling in front of his face and hanging down at his side, spoke the names of Jesus—it was all I could do—not to jump up and shout like a Pentecostal in a Holy Ghost revival.

And, I’ve never been to a Pentecostal Holy Ghost revival.

I looked down and I was sitting on my hands with my legs to keep them still, the tears streaming down my face.

There is a power that comes, not from experience, nor from age, nor from practice, but from the Word.  From the mouths of babes, through the writings of old men, by the witness of all who are His, He speaks.

From mouths of babes, writings of old men, & witness of all His own, He speaks. Click To Tweet

Disregarding our differences, ignoring our preferences, and brushing aside our objections, He will be heard.

Disregarding differences, ignoring preferences, brushing aside objections, He will be heard. Click To Tweet

I wonder if it’s time for us to realize that our Creator uses—He always has—the methods He thinks best to ensure an audience for His words.

I wonder if it’s time for us—young and old—to close our mouths about those methods we don’t especially like.  

I haven’t always given of my best for Him.  Sadly, I may have left it a bit late to give of the best of my youth.

I’m grateful that all the young folks aren’t waiting around until their golden years to work on it seriously. 

Still, I have begun to look at youth a little differently.  I wrote recently about that great cloud of witnesses the writer of the book of Hebrews in the New Testament describes.  I realized that these men and women are my peers.  

Really.  Moses, Abraham, Rahab, Sarah, and all the others—all of them, my peers.  Yours, too.  

We’ll join them one day, to live without any time limit there. 

If we’re to live forever, and I believe we will, we’ve only lived a minuscule percentage of all the days we have ahead of us.

I’m still young.

There’s still time.

I’ll give it my best.

                              

I invite you to watch the video linked below.  Powerful words—from the heart of the poet and directly from God’s Word.

 

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
     Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
     Than when we’d first begun.
(from Amazing Grace ~ English clergyman ~ 1725-1807)

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Changing the Future

Our past meets our future in this place we call the present.

The words, I wrote a few years ago.  They still rattle me every time I re-read them.

Well?  Why wouldn’t they?  The concept is enough to mess with anyone’s brain.  Momentarily, at least.

We like to keep things in boxes.  Neat.  Logical.  With labels to identify the contents.

Some of us are more interested in keeping things in boxes than others.  I freely admit it.

“Go to the store with me, will you?”

The Lovely Lady stood at the door, notebook in hand and ready to buy groceries for the week.  I, wise husband that I’ve become in nearly forty years of practice, quickly agreed.  Cheerfully.

There is a hierarchy at the grocery store.  It’s not complicated.  She puts things in the cart and marks them off her list. 

I push the cart.  That’s it—just push the cart.

Oh, wait.  There is one other thing I do.

I sort the items in the cart.

Don’t make that face!  You’re rolling your eyes too, aren’t you?

That’s just what she does when I start sorting.  Well—it’s what she used to do when I started.  She’s come to expect it now.

If there were boxes in the cart, I’d use them.  There aren’t, so imaginary quadrants must suffice.

Fresh veggies go at the back of the cart, heaviest on the bottom (potatoes will smash bananas).  The Lovely Lady wants to keep me around (for sorting things, I suppose) as long as possible, so there are more fresh veggies than anything else.

From there, logic rules.  Canned goods go in one section, boxed in another.  All the refrigerated items stay together.  It keeps them colder; I’m sure it does.

Fragile items, such as chips (not nearly as many of these as there should be) and eggs, go in the flip down compartment that once served to corral our children.

It’s a good system.  I like it.

The problem comes when we get to the checkout counter.  I am careful—fanatical, some might say—about keeping the items in the same quadrants as they progress to the checker.  What would they think of me if I sent the milk down the conveyor belt beside the flour?

And, now we come to it.  The fly in the ointment, so to speak.  The bee in my bonnet, if you will.

The checker, somehow oblivious—utterly—to my care and prudence, callously snatches each item from the belt, swiping it past the scanner and tosses it, willy-nilly, into the empty, waiting cart beside her station.

Boxes are jumbled at angles with cans. Potatoes smother celery and toilet paper.  The milk, heavy enough to be placed on the bottom of the cart instead of tossed, is at the front of the conveyance while the meat is at the back, both warming much too fast for my overloaded sense of order.

Maybe we should move on.  Shall we?

Our past meets our future in this place we call the present.

Past meets future in this place called the present. Click To Tweet

I’m not obsessive-compulsive about everything in life.  Still, I have, for many years, considered what I would like to see when I look back over my life on that last day.  To that end, I have attempted to keep a semblance of order in how I have lived.

What was it Mr. Shakespeare said?  What’s past is prologue was the phrase, I believe.  The meaning is clear.

What we have done in the past leads us, without fail, into the future.  The nano-second of the present, a mere blink of the eye, will forever affect what is to come.

My trip through the grocery is the past.  Plans, all laid carefully, were executed flawlessly.

All it took was just seconds—an instant in which I lost control—and the present had altered the future catastrophically.

Hmmm.  I think perhaps—for this example anyway—one could call that hyperbole.  

Regardless, the point is clear enough, is it not?

There’s an old maxim, not quite in line with Scripture, but still it comes to mind.  It says the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  

I think, if the road to hell is paved with them, the road to heaven is, at least, littered with them.  

We know what the road to heaven is paved with; it’s paved with the grace of our loving Savior.

It is specifically because of His great love for us that I want to be able to look back and know I have journeyed in a faithful way, leaving a clear record for those who walk the way after me.

But, in the most crucial moments, it all gets jumbled and messed up in a colossal manner.

My past is introduced to my future with moments I am ashamed of.  Again and again.

Surrounded by that great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1), I’m chagrined.  Mortified.

I’m a failure.

But then, I look into those faces, the witnesses I mean.  For one or two who are named, there is no record of failure.  The rest of them? Failures, every one!

Every one.

Failures who fell flat on their faces.  Liars, con men, drunks, womanizers, bad parents, murderers even.

But, they got up (or were picked up).  They took the next step.  And the next one.

I can do that.  I’m still breathing.  

I think it’s time to be walking again.

That way.  Following His lead.

The future is still waiting.  

I can’t change the past.

The next moment will be the present.

Here it comes.

Ready?

 

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.
(Sir Winston Churchill ~ British Prime Minister ~ 1974-1965)

 

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.
(Hebrews 12:1 ~ NLTHoly Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. All rights reserved.)

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Live Boldly

I’m not sure when it stopped mattering to me.  At some point in the last forty years, things changed drastically.

I don’t care what they think anymore.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I?  Perhaps, a little explanation will aid in unravelling my boast.

It was during the last semester of the school year.  The beloved director of the student orchestra, which graciously allows me to participate—I think, just to have the part covered—had handed out a new music piece.

We sight-read the piece.  Sight-reading is the act of playing a piece of music through without having ever rehearsed—or even seen—it before.

I didn’t realize it was true of my playing, but it must have been.  After the rehearsal session was over, as we were putting away our instruments, one of the students mentioned that he had heard my solo line clearly.

I don’t know how you dare do that—play it loud enough for everyone else to hear.  And, on the first run-through, too!

I thought a minute before replying.

There’s no one here I’m afraid of.  Why not play it out? 

It hasn’t always been the case.  My old horn teacher hammered the thought into my head.  I’ve written the words before.

If you’re going to make a mistake, make it loud enough for me to hear!

The last time I wrote the phrase, someone responded with Martin Luther’s words, paraphrased a bit.

Sin boldly.

I cringe a little at the words.  I don’t want to encourage anyone to live a life of debauchery, claiming the grace of God as their get-out-of-jail-free card.  That’s not the way it works.

But, Mr. Luther knew and understood our lifelong tug of war with self and sin.  He affirmed the grace of God to be more than adequate to the task of cleansing us from all sin.

Still.  I will say it again.  Play it out!  Speak with authority! Belt out the tune!

I’ve not always followed that advice.  For many years, what I wanted was to be loud enough that everyone would hear the good and compliment me for it, but soft enough that not one listener could detect the rotten inconsistencies that were bound to turn up sooner or later.

What changed?

What changed was the realization that there was nobody—either in the ensemble or in the audience—I was afraid of.  There is nothing they can do to hurt me.

I’m just sorry it took me so many years to realize it.

All those wasted years spent sliding around wrong notes and playing out of tune—meekly and quietly—when I could have been making a difference.

Bold and certain of my sanction, I could have been a voice that made a difference, sounding with clarity and purpose.

Hmmm.  I think we’re not just talking about playing in the orchestra anymore, are we?

And the Teacher told His disciples that they had been practicing in the dark and behind closed doors at low volumes for long enough.  All that was about to change.

What you’ve been playing at the pianissimo level behind closed doors and in the dark will soon be played out in the town square at fortissimo.  You’re afraid of the wrong people!  Don’t fear them.  Fear God. (Luke 12:3,4)

I’ll admit, I’ve taken a little liberty with the context.  To my knowledge, that little band of men has no record of having played musical instruments, even though they did sing a time or two.

Still, the meaning is the same.  Very nearly.  

Don’t be afraid to be heard.  Be loud!  Be bold!

But, maybe you don’t play a musical instrument.  Perhaps you simply answer a telephone.  Or clean floors.  Or write code. Or sell flowers.

Whatever you do, you can do it with boldness.  You’re not doing it for anyone who has the power to harm you.

We perform for the One who has made it clear, unequivocally and emphatically that He will not allow us to be harmed.  Under His direction, we find safety.  (Psalm 46:1)

Does that imply that no one will laugh at us?  Is it a promise of physical protection, that we will lead charmed lives?

You know the answer.  Damage to the body is not damage to the soul.

He holds our souls in the palm of His hand.  It is the only safe place—the only one.

So, we speak boldly.  We act courageously.  We love audaciously.

Speak boldly. Act courageously. Love audaciously. Click To Tweet

There’s nothing to hurt us here.

There's nothing to hurt us here. We're held firmly in His grip. Click To Tweet

Held firmly in His grip, we live life out loud.

Fortissimo.

ff!

 

Live well.  Sing out, sing loud, and sing often.  And God bless the child that’s got a song.
(Nanci Griffith ~ American singer/songwriter)

 

The wicked run away when no one is chasing them,
    but the godly are as bold as lions.
(Proverbs 28:1 ~ NLTHoly Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation.  All rights reserved.)

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Retreat Sounds

They called them retreats.  

We couldn’t have told you what the word meant.  Not when used in that context.

Usually, a group of teenagers was loaded into cars to ride to unfamiliar surroundings, mostly campgrounds in the middle of nowhere.

For two or three days, we engaged in ambitious activities—games, hikes, group discussions, and the like.  Since we were usually thrown in with other teenagers we didn’t know, the stress level was high as we vied for the pretty girls’ attention and did our best to mark our territory and establish superiority over the other boys.

It wasn’t a relaxing time.

I am older now.  Much older.  The need to impress pretty females has faded into a dim memory (except for one particular Lovely Lady).  Mostly, I leave the butting heads process to younger men anxious to leave their marks on their corner of the world.

I have a much better comprehension of how to retreat now.  In a world filled with the imagery of battles and strife, the time to turn away from the fray and find a place in which to tend to wounds and basic emotional and spiritual needs is well within my power of discernment.

Quite obviously, the term is of military origin, although not necessarily in the sense in which we normally view it.  

Somehow, we have been taught to believe retreat is the same as a rout, a defeat in battle.  Although that might sometimes be the case, on many occasions a retreat is called simply to give the combatants a chance to rest and get ready to re-engage.

The wise leader always knew when his command was at the breaking point, the place where casualties would begin to mount catastrophically.  Sounding the retreat was a way of living to fight another day—on full stomachs and well rested.

Retreat is rightfully a tool of battle, not an admission of defeat.

Retreat is rightfully a tool of battle, not an admission of defeat. Click To Tweet

The warrior king who wrote many of the Psalms understood the value of the retreat.  In the worst time imaginable, a time when he was fighting battles with his own son, he writes of sleeping soundly and once again arising to courage and faith.  (Psalm 3:5,6)

In the most popular of all his writings, he speaks of lying down in green fields and of being led by still waters to be restored in soul and spirit. (Psalm 23:2,3)

David writes of the soul of the warrior at rest in the Prince of Peace.

The soul of the warrior is at rest in the Prince of Peace. Click To Tweet

I need that.  Exactly that.

Perhaps, I’m not the only one.

Our lives, to the uninvolved bystander, are completely unlike the one this man-after-God’s-own-heart saw unfold before him thousands of years ago.  And yet, for all that, our battles aren’t any less hard-fought, nor any less important.

My battles don’t look anything like those of folks around me, either.  Still, battles they are, with casualties to be counted and wounds to be dressed.

Retreat must come.  It must.

And Jesus told His followers it was time for them to retreat. (Mark 6:31)  Well no, not in so many words.  But, the meaning was exactly that.  They had so much more ahead of them, and they needed to be rested and healed.

Come aside.  Rest.  Recover.

Prepare.

Wait!  What?

If our retreat is not preparation to re-enter the field of the battle, it is nothing more than admission of defeat.  Complete and utter.  Defeat.

Yes, it’s time—perhaps, past time—for a retreat, a time of healing.  But, if that time isn’t used wisely, in preparation for what is yet to come, we could just as well have stayed out there swinging in exhaustion without stopping.

The man on the sidelines who is never coming back into the game is no longer a competitor.  

If we’re called aside, it’s only for a short season.  

A soldier fights.  A servant serves.  A teacher teaches.

Out there is where we fulfill our purpose.  If the trumpet has sounded retreat, it is to get us ready to go back out there.

Armor on.

It’s time to stand.

Again.

 

 

They don’t know that 
I go running home when I fall down
They don’t know Who picks me 
Up when no one is around
I drop my sword and cry for just a while
‘Cause deep inside this armor
The warrior is a child.
(The Warrior is a Child ~ Twila Paris ~ © Universal Music Publishing Group ~ All rights reserved)

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Turning the Screws

It’s not like I’m a light weight.

In pounds, I mean.  And yet, all it takes is the turn of a screw and I’m carried away.

All the way to forty years ago, I’m dragged back.  Nineteen seventy-seven.  And all I did was insert the blade of the Craftsman screwdriver into the slot and turned.  Just a trivial flat-head screw.

The facelift on this old house has been a challenge.  Nearly every new task has loomed before my spirit in brazen defiance.  Several have very nearly defeated me.

In my deepest bouts of self-doubt during each of these tasks, I find myself turning aside for a few moments, or an hour, or even a day.  I abandon the difficult and unfamiliar to spend some time doing the easy things—the repetitive little chores which must eventually be done, but require no great amount of knowledge or resolve.

I remove knobs or door stops.  Here, a hinge needs to be replaced.  There, a brace.  Old screws are removed, the item repaired or replaced, and reattached, either with the same screws or new ones.

Almost without exception, the items I remove are held in place with slotted screws—the kind which require a flat-head driver to manipulate them.

I had one of those moments today.  Overwhelmed by the mental gymnastics required to make a repair to an old section of the ceiling, I decided instead to install that cabinet door latch we had purchased a couple of weeks ago.  Grabbing the Phillips-head screwdriver, I knelt in front of the cabinet and bent my head to peer inside the opening.

The tool I held was useless for the task at hand. You might think I’d be frustrated, but that wasn’t the case.

Smiling, I made my way back to the tool shelf in the utility room, selecting my favorite flathead screwdriver from the jumble of hammers, wrenches, drill bits, and pliers.  Returning to the cabinet, I removed the old, broken part without a hitch.

It was his house, you know.

Always.  Always, the white-haired man installed flathead screws if he had a choice.  I met him forty years ago, and it was never any different.

Even before I went to work for him full-time in the music store, I helped out if he had need of an extra pair of hands when I happened to be loitering about. I loitered about quite often in those days.

That first time (the place I was carried back to), it was a piano bench—the kind with a storage compartment concealed under a hinged top.

The old fellow—in his late fifties by that time (anyone over forty was old to nineteen-year-old me)—knelt beside one end of the bench plying a Phillips-head screwdriver, not quietly.

“Those things are terrible!  Give me a slotted-head screw any day.   I don’t know why anybody thought a Phillips was a good idea.”

He looked over at me and grinned.

“I mean the Phillips-head screw and driver; not you and your family.”

Even when he was frustrated, the jokester in him wouldn’t be repressed.

We replaced every screw in those hinges with slotted-head screws when it was buttoned up, as he called it—just in case he ever had to work on that bench again.

In all the years I worked with that white-haired man who would become my father-in-law, I never knew him to have a Phillips screwdriver that wasn’t rounded off or stripped completely.

He did the same thing to many of the screws he attempted to remove with the damaged tools.

Did you know that most screws in use today are Phillips-head screws?  The crosshead pattern, paired with the correct size driver, gives the person driving the screw greater turning power and a more secure seat for the tool.

Slot-head screwdrivers have—well—slots, places the driver can slide out of either side if it’s not held exactly flat and perpendicular to the screw.

It took me a year or two to figure out the old man’s problem with the new-fangled screws (they were patented in 1936) he fought with constantly.

He was using the wrong tool.

Oh, he used a Phillips-head screwdriver to drive Phillips-head screws, but there are, in fact, five different sizes of the tool.  Five graduated crosshead shaped drivers, which fit twenty-four different sizes of screws.

That’s right.  Five tools.  For twenty-four sizes of screws. No wonder his drivers were always mangled.

I’m still smiling at the memory I have stored away.  But, I’m wondering if there is something more to be learned here than not being set in one’s ways?  I think there is.

I find myself these days reading a lot.  As a writer, it’s a practical way to learn new techniques and different styles in writing.  As an aging man, it can be a frustrating discouragement.

Everywhere I look, I see formulas.  You know—if you do A, B, and C, the result will be D.

I’ve tried doing A, B, and C.  The result is categorically not D.

It never has been.  It never will be D, no matter how many times I repeat the process.

I don’t fit their formula.

I notice now that many packages which once stated one size fits all have been amended to state one size fits most.  I’m pretty sure even that is an exaggeration.

No one needs me to affirm that we are all different.  One look at me (and possibly yourself) will confirm that some of us are, indeed, quite odd.

One size doesn’t fit all—or even most.

Our Creator made us to be the individuals we are, all part of the same human race, but all marching to different rhythms.  We all have different sized dreams.

God gives us all different sized dreams. One size doesn't fit all. Click To Tweet

He knows each one of us—knows exactly what drives us—knows how we’ve been uniquely gifted to achieve His purpose.

Every one of us who will come to Him does so in the same way, by way of the cross.  From there, His Spirit is the driving force, perfectly proportioned for our life’s journey.

The apostle who wrote letters had a clear, personal understanding because of his own experience.  His assurance was that God’s grace was enough.

Enough—specifically for him. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

This is important.

God’s grace fits us—each one of us.

God's grace fits us—each one of us. Click To Tweet

His grace is enough for me.  It’s enough for you.  Whatever we’ve done, wherever we’ve been, His grace fits our precise need.

Not one individual is excluded.

He doesn’t stop there.  From the pen of the same author comes the declaration of infinitely more. (Ephesians 3:20)

Without limitation.

We come, every one of us by way of the cross, to find His grace enough and His provision more than we could ever ask of Him.

Can I say it?  I think I will.

The Right Tool for the right job.

It fits.

It always has.

Every time.

 

 

You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body
    and knit me together in my mother’s womb.
 Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!
    Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.
(Psalm 139:13,14 ~ NLT ~ Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. All rights reserved.)

 

 

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Integrity. Again.

It was embarrassing.  To me, anyway.

I don’t suppose anyone else noticed it.  Even if they had, they wouldn’t have mentioned it.

The pastor was talking.  Something about things the disciples misunderstood about Jesus.

I think that’s what it was.  I was paying attention.  I was.

But, looking down as he spoke, I noticed them.  The threads.  The ones hanging from the hem on the right sleeve of my shirt.  It wasn’t just one or two, either.  

The whole edge of the sleeve was frayed, with white strings dangling like the fringe around the shade of grandma’s old table lamp.

I don’t remember what the pastor said now.  I do remember looking quickly from my right arm to the left, only to find more frayed edges.

It is one of my favorite short-sleeved shirts, but I will never be seen in it again.  Years of wear, of putting on and taking off, of raising my hands in joyful triumph and of shaking my fists in angry frustration, have taken their toll on the woven cloth and left it weak and fragile.

It has lost its integrity.

No longer do the crisscrossed threads, woven over and under, keep their place.  No longer is there a sharp crease at the edge of the sleeve, a clear boundary between fabric and skin.

It has lost its integrity.

I stealthily ran my finger around the circumference of each sleeve, to try and hide the errant threads.  Pulling the sleeves tight against my biceps, I hoped no one would notice.

They may have.  Or not.  It doesn’t matter.

The Lovely Lady will remove the buttons, tossing them into a jar—why, I’m not sure— and the once-favored garment will find itself in the trash bin, come trash pickup day.

Well?  I can’t very well go around in a shirt with no integrity, now can I?

When last I wrote, it was scars.  Today, a lack of integrity.  Both hidden.  Both needing to be exposed to the light of day.

They are not the same—scars and lost integrity.  Somehow though, we punish folks for both, blaming the injured as much as we do the dishonest.

But, I want to make this clear—crystal clear:  Grace suffices for both.  

Grace heals our scars, restoring our damaged spirits and renewing our joy.  

Grace makes new the fabric of our broken lives, restoring integrity and revitalizing our resolve.

Because of grace, we can journey on.  In His redemption, we are made new, neither wounded nor dishonorable.

His offer is for a garment with integrity and without stain.  Ours—the price paid completely by our Redeemer. (Revelation 3:18)

No more embarrassment.

No more being tossed aside.

He doesn’t cut off the buttons and throw away the worn out fabric.

He doesn't cut off the buttons and throw away the worn out fabric. Click To Tweet

Grace makes new.

Integrity.

Again.

 

 

In great matters, men show themselves as they wish to be seen; in small matters, as they are.
(Gamaliel Bradford ~ American biographer ~ 1863-1932)

 

May integrity and honesty protect me,
    for I put my hope in you.
(Psalm 25:21 ~ NLTHoly Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation.  All rights reserved.)

 

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Undressing in Public

My pocket was vibrating.  We were most of the way through Eternal Father, Strong to Save when the distraction began.  Ignoring the momentary buzzing, I bumbled my way through the end of the piece.

I don’t use my phone during orchestra rehearsal.  Usually, I don’t.  But you know—my house could have been burning or an intercontinental ballistic missile might have been heading our way— so, as soon as our conductor turned her attention to the violins, helping them to find the pitch which they seemed to have lost during the last piece, I checked my messages.

One was a reminder that I had promised to go to coffee with another member of the orchestra at nine o’clock, right after we finished the rehearsal.  The other was from another friend, inviting me to join him and a third friend at ten o’clock for coffee.

It was cutting it close (and there was a danger of caffeine overdose), but I snuck my phone onto the music stand and surreptitiously sent a return message saying I would try to be there.

I hope no one will squeal on me to the director.

Friends in this world are hard to come by.  Friends who will take the time to invite a grumpy old guy such as I to coffee are even harder to find.  

Time spent among such friends is never wasted.  Never.

I met with my red-headed tuba-playing friend and we laughed, and commiserated, and laughed some more. 

Then I met with the preacher and his/my guitar-playing friend and we laughed, and commiserated, and laughed some more.

All in all, the two encounters were probably the most important two hours I spent in the whole day.  They were completely uneventful.  By that I mean there were no important decisions made, no actions taken, not even any subjects of any great significance discussed.

There were two things which happened, which have had me thinking for two days.  The first happened near the end of my time with my friend from the orchestra.

An acquaintance, who knew both of us, wandered by on his way out of the restaurant and took a minute to stop and talk with us.  As we wondered aloud how he was doing, he began to unbutton his shirt.

Let me show you something. 

My friend and I exchanged quizzical glances.  I can’t speak for him, but people don’t normally undress in public while I’m talking with them.  We needn’t have worried.  

He just wanted to show us the scar.

The scar from his open heart surgery a few months ago went from just below his ribs up to the top of his chest.   He told us in colorful terms about his previous symptoms and the surgery, as well as its aftermath.  It was good that we had finished our coffee and buns already.

I only mention the event because the second thing that happened was very much like it.

I arrived at the second venue for coffee consumption just a few minutes after the agreed-upon time and grabbed my third cup of coffee of the morning before sitting down with my two friends.

Within minutes, the guitar player was unbuttoning his shirt.  Seriously.

Let me show you something.

His scar was horizontal, not vertical.  Just below his collarbone, the three-inch incision was not completely healed and it looked tender.

The pacemaker/defibrillator has only been in his body for a short time, but he joked and dismissed it as lightly as if it were of no consequence at all.  We knew better but didn’t dwell on it.

Two men, within a quarter hour of each other, had unbuttoned their shirts to show me something I would never have seen otherwise.

What a curious thing!

It was almost as if there was a message I needed not to miss.

There was.

I didn’t.

I couldn’t.

How many people do I see in a day?  Ten?  Fifty?  A thousand?  I suppose it depends on the day and the places I go.

Still, if inside of fifteen minutes, two men had shown me their scars, how many do you suppose I pass every day—every single day—who have scars they don’t show me?

How many people are walking around hiding scars?  Scars too ugly, too fresh, too painful to reveal to anyone.

You know we’re not talking about physical scars, right?  Well, maybe some of them.

Some physical scars work their way right down into the soul of the person wearing them.

Scars put there by hatred.  

Scars dealt out by people who were supposed to show love instead.  

Scars carved into their body by their own hand.

And yet, those scars are, as the red-headed lady who raised me would have said, only the tip of the iceberg.

We carry, in our bodies and souls, scars innumerable.  Scars we wouldn’t dare to show to anyone.

Not to anyone.

There is not one human being who is unscathed.  Not one.  We all have scars.  Words said.  Pain remembered.  War.  Old age.

Every part of our lives has its anguish.  Scars come from all types of injuries.

And, we walk around with the scars hidden from sight.  Walking wounded, many of them yet unhealed.  Oozing, scabby things—they threaten to drain the life from us.

Tears come as I contemplate it.  So much pain.  So much hopelessness.  All concealed and festering.

Some of it is mine.  Perhaps, yours as well.

Our Savior came to bind up the broken hearts. (Isaiah 61:1)

More than that, He came to heal the scars and take away the pain.  Because of His scars, healing is ours. (Isaiah 53:5)

There are some who take those words to mean physical healing. I won’t argue His power to do that.  It seems clear though, that the words are intended to give us an unequivocal promise of healing for our souls.

Our scars need no longer be hidden!  We need conceal our pain and our shame no more.

Thomas—the one we ridicule as the doubter—asked Him to unbutton His shirt and show him. Right in front of a houseful of His followers.

The scars of a common criminal—revealed for everyone in the room to see.  The stripes upon His back, laid on by the Roman soldier.  The holes in his wrists and feet, torn open by spikes hammered through (not gently).  

All uncovered without embarrassment.

For us, His flesh was laid open.

My heart breaks as I consider all who walk in shame and fear—fear of the exposure of their scars and fear of carrying them to their graves.

I wonder.  Maybe it’s time to show our scars to each other.

Maybe it's time to show our scars to each other. Click To Tweet

Maybe it’s time to tell the Good News, to do a little binding up of wounded hearts ourselves.

Maybe, it’s time to undress.

In public.

Let me show you something.

 

It has been said, ‘time heals all wounds.’ I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone.
(Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy ~ American philanthropist ~ 1890-1995)

 

He heals the brokenhearted
    and binds up their wounds.
(Psalm 147:3 ~ NIV ~ Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®  All rights reserved.)

 

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Borrowing Words

I thought it was a book only nerds would ever use.  I’m not certain I have ever bought a copy of my own to this day.

Lamar Junior High School.  That’s where I first saw a copy of this mysterious book.  Usually, it was a small paperback, stacked on top of whatever miscellaneous textbooks the brainiacs were carrying, clamped tightly under the arm and against the body as they scooted down the drafty hallways.

I wasn’t a brainiac.

Roget’s Thesaurus.  

Oh.  A foreign language book.  I was already enrolled in a Spanish class and had no interest in taking up an additional language.

Except it wasn’t.  A foreign language book.  Still, it would take an awfully long time for me to care about what it really was.

And then, it would be years before I felt the need to consult such a volume.  Years before I actually understood the importance of what lay in the pages of the little publication.

It was all I could do to learn the English language.  Why would I need a book which gave me alternatives to perfectly good words?

My native language was quite difficult enough, thank you.  But then I think back.  I did learn another language.  Many of my friends were fluent in it long before I began to pick it up. 

It wasn’t spoken in my home.  How would I have come by it naturally?

I call the language crudish.  Today, I do.  Back then, I called it cool.  I do also seem to remember a friend who called it cursive, a term that some might think cute, but mostly, it’s just sad.

I know many who practice the language today.  Its usage is on the rise, even among the very young.  When I operated a music store, we would frequently have folks come in who spoke little else.  It’s popular nowadays on the street and in the department stores.

Some languages give you an air of mystery; some are romantic.  Some can make us sound more intelligent than we are; others seem almost comedic.

Crudish is one of those languages which seems to deduct points from the speaker’s intelligence quotient right in front of our eyes.  Or ears—whichever.

Regardless, during the years when I spoke that demeaning language, I found one very curious thing.

There were no words in that vocabulary with which I could describe my faith—my Savior—my God.

No words.

Some things are simply too high, too precious, for gutter language to even make a start in describing them.

Growing in my faith, the realization took root that crudish would never be a language I could use on my journey to becoming the man God needed me to be.

There are scriptures which could be quoted in support of my assumption.  Somehow though, we know without being told that some language is inappropriate to use as we come before the King of all that is.

I know many who are followers of Christ, as I am, yet still retain much of that language.  They respond differently when the words slip into conversation, from embarrassment to defiance.  I have no judgment to offer, simply my perspective.

I want to communicate clearly to the world around me.  I want there to be no uncertainty about what drives me and Who I follow.

That crude language has no words to explain those things.  None.

But, there is more.  Again and again, I find the words I have in my limited vocabulary to be inadequate to the task, as well.  

So, I use a thesaurus.  Really, I do. Nearly every day. 

I constantly seek new ways to express ancient truths.

If all of life is not a chasing after God, attempting to know Him better, we’ve squandered the days.

If each day is not spent in learning how to give a clear reason to those not yet in the chase, we’ve wasted the hours and minutes. (1 Peter 3:15)

There’s a quotation attributed (erroneously) to Francis of Assisi that tells us to preach the Gospel and if necessary, to use words.  It’s not a bad thing to make the point that we should live out our faith.  Not a bad thing at all.

However, words are how we communicate truth.  King David, a man never at loss for innovative ways to communicate the truth of God’s love and power—and glory—was clear in his prayer: I want the words coming out of my mouth, and even the feelings in my heart to be acceptable to You, God. (Psalm 19:14)

It’s not enough to feel it; the words must be said.

It's not enough to feel it; the words must be said. Click To Tweet

Yes, I use that nerd book.  Well, it’s not actually Mr. Roget’s thesaurus I use.  There are tools at our disposal today that junior high school kid I used to be never could have dreamed of.  But, just because I never dreamed of them back then doesn’t mean I can’t avail myself of them now.

I want to use whatever language communicates in no uncertain terms the hope, the anticipation, the joy that lie ahead.  Like young Timothy, I want to study, so I can gain my Creator’s approval.

In the process, I can’t help but become more like him.  The process is slow, painfully so, but certain.

Daily, He shows us in new and varied ways His love for us.  

How could we do any less, as we reflect His light to a world desperate for its brilliance?

 

What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever, and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.
(from O Sacred Head, Now Wounded ~ Bernard of Clairvaux ~ French monk/theologian ~ 1090-1153)

 

Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
(2 Timothy 2:15 ~ KJV)

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2017. All Rights Reserved.

But the Thorns!

What a beautiful tree!  It’s absolutely the perfect place to put a treehouse!

A few of us were spending the morning helping our friends move.  It wasn’t that big a deal—loading a U-Haul truck with furniture and boxes, along with a pickup truck or three—since we were only going a mile away.

Still, we welcomed a minute to stand in the cool shade of the stately tree and savor a long drink of cold water.  It had been a morning filled with laughter and joviality as we labored together, but hard work in the sunshine seems to be a recipe for sweat and thirst.  We stood under the branches of the flourishing tree and were refreshed—by the water and the shade.

Looking up, I noticed the configuration of the sturdy branches where they joined the massive trunk.  The branches all came out of the trunk at something close to a right angle before sweeping upward, where they spread out to the leafy extremity of the tree’s crown.

Ah!  At sixty years old, I would be stretching credulity to claim the title of tree climber, but in a past life, I would have been up that tree in a minute.

Perfection!  What a magnificent tree!

The children quite obviously shared my opinion; one of the taller boys was already giving the younger ones a leg up onto the lower limbs.  Within moments, the branches were teeming with youngsters above our heads.

What a delight!  What I wouldn’t give to have such a tree in my yard for my grandchildren to experience.  Why, if it were in my yard, I might give it a shot myself—when the neighbors weren’t around to see my foolishness, of course.

And, the possibilities for a tree house!  Although, it seems such dreams may actually be governed by building codes and city ordinances in this bureaucratic age in which we live.

Still.  A tree house!

What a perfect tree!

The teenaged young man who had lifted up the younger kids was still standing nearby as I expressed my admiration.  Even though he is just moving into the house, he had done his homework regarding the majestic tree.

Yes.  This tree is a sweetgum.  So are those next door.

He tossed the words out carelessly, as if they weren’t nearly the sternest denunciation he could make of the ancient giant.  Perhaps—in fairness—to him they weren’t.

What a shame.  How unfortunate that some uneducated homeowner had planted such an unsuitable specimen right in the middle of his front yard.

I looked around in the leafy ends of the branches.  Sure enough, hanging down, I spotted them.  Those spiny seed pods!  Horrible things!

I wouldn’t have that tree in my front yard!  Not for anything!

You’re laughing at me, aren’t you?  Go ahead.  Laugh all you want.  I hate cleaning up those spiny things.  They drop off the tree in the fall and the yard will be full of them.

Did you know, the sweetgum tree is often and vociferously named by homeowners as one of the worst trees to have in your yard?  It’s all because of those spiny seed pods, gumballs, some folks call them, which might even be dangerous.  They roll underneath your shoe and make you twist your ankle.  They hurt your head if you happen to be under the tree when one falls. And, don’t even think about going barefoot in the yard where one of those horrible trees is growing.

You’re still laughing.  You should be.

Moments before, I declared the tree perfect.  That’s right.  Perfect.  

As in, every good gift and every perfect gift is a gift from above, coming down to us from God, the Father of Lights. (James 1:17)

And now?  If it were gift-wrapped and planted in my front yard, I’d turn up my nose at the horrible thing.

Silly, isn’t it?  The tree is magnificent, with spreading limbs and foliage providing wonderful shade, growing straight up to heavens, fifty or sixty feet above my head.  Yet, here I stand, repenting of my admiration for it because of a little seed pod an inch and a half in diameter.

I think they call this incongruous.  It certainly demonstrates a lack of perspective on my part.

It seems to be a common trait for humanity.  My mind jumps to examples of our fickle approval or disapproval of other people and situations.  Yours will too, given a moment or two of introspection.

Perhaps, there is even one which hits very close to home, maybe even painfully so.  I know I have too many of my own.

And, even though I’m glad for the company in my foolishness, I’m disappointed in myself—and us.  I’m even more than a little embarrassed.

How is it we stand face to face with amazing blessings which we recognize clearly but, having noticed the tiniest of flaws, can see nothing else?

And soon, the imperfection becomes an annoyance.  As the annoyance grows, our sense of being blessed diminishes.

Before long, we have exchanged our blessings for curses, our joys for anger, our gifts for punishments.

It’s impossible to be grateful when one is critical of the gift they’ve been given. 

It's impossible to be grateful when one is critical of the gift. Click To Tweet

He gives good gifts.  They are gifts which bring joy.  They are gifts which build character.  Sometimes, both at the same time.

Our old friend, Job, understood it when He answered his wife, who wanted him to curse God for the disasters which had destroyed the life he once had known.

Does it seem right to accept good from God and not the hardships also?  That’s foolishness!  (Job 2:10)

I understand.  A spiny seed pod on a beautiful tree is not the same as having your entire family wiped out and losing all your wealth.  Still, the principle applies.

God is for us.  

He intends good.  For us.  

He does good.  For us.

If He is for us, what do the inconveniences matter?  

If He is for us, we can abide the testing, the hard spots.  

The apostle, for whom I am named, said he considered these passing hardships as not worth comparing to the glorious expectation of what will one day be ours.  (Romans 8:18)

I’m with him.  At least, I want to be.  

One day—on that day—all of the things we complained and griped about here will seem as a hazy fog blown away by the morning breezes.  Gone in an instant, leaving no proof that they ever existed.

He gives good gifts.  Good. 

And, we are forever grateful.

I’d still keep the rake handy for the spiny seed pods, though.

 

I beg your pardon.  I never promised you a rose garden.
Along with the sunshine, there’s got to be a little rain sometime.
(from Rose Garden ~ Joe South ~ © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC ~ All rights reserved.)

 

But Job replied, “You talk like a foolish woman. Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” So in all this, Job said nothing wrong.
(Job 2:10 ~ NLT Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. All rights reserved.)

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Out There, He Walks

It’s not like I carry treats in my pocket.  But, you never would have known it, the way the rotund black lab kept her head against my leg as I walked.

She always has done that—kept her head against my leg when she walks beside me.  It’s just that she’s never done it while I was mowing the yard.

Every pass—every step of the way.  Back and forth we went, the black dog and I, almost as if I had her on a leash.

She could have left any time she wanted.  The only thing keeping her there was her fear.  And her trust.

It’s funny I should mention fear and trust together like that, isn’t it?

Perhaps, we should go back a few steps, before the terrified—and trusting—canine began to stroll with me on my accustomed pattern through the grass.

The August rains have arrived within the last week or two.  I love these times.  The summer, mild as it has been, has taken its toll on the verdant vegetation here in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains.

The trees have begun to shed extraneous leaves.  The grass, still mostly green, had grown a little crunchy underfoot.  Another week or so of the summertime heat, and it would have been brown.

Brown is not a happy color.

But, the August rains have come.  Unpredictable—even for the folks who make a living predicting them—they arrive, unannounced except for the occasional rumble of thunder across the hills.

Still, the property is for sale and it must look as presentable as possible at all times.  When one is dodging rain storms and still needing to mow the grass, you tend to slip the task in between showers and pray for the rain to hold off a few more moments.

I had completed the front yard and, looking up at the darkening sky, determined that I would have just enough time to complete the task in the fenced back yard.  The rolling thunder in the distance gave warning, but I was confident.

Most folks who have pets will understand the dilemma my best friends found themselves in.  Thunder means it’s time to head for the fraidy-hole under the storage shed.

But. . .  The man who feeds us!  He’s in the backyard.  We must be with him.  

But. . .  The big booming noise in the sky! Something is going to fall on us any minute now!  We have to stay here!

The need to be with their master won out.  Covered with dust, they emerged from their hiding place to greet me.  I took a moment to play with them, but soon returned to the chore of knocking down the crabgrass and weeds threatening to turn my backyard into a habitat which might soon have to be protected by the EPA. 

We’re sorry, Mr. Phillips.  You’ll need to move.  We’ve discovered a colony of red-and-green spotted toads in your grass.  No.  They can’t be relocated.  You’ll have to go.

So I mowed.  And, the chubby black lab, who is one of the most vocal dogs that’s ever owned me, stayed with me every step of the way, whimpering and whining all the while.

She is terrified of storms.  Terrified.

But, she trusts me.  She knows she is safe when I’m around.  On that day, terror was all around, but she knew where safety lay.

She walked, nose glued to my thigh, every step I took.  Every lap around the perimeter—every row I mowed down and back—she followed, snout to leg.

The big, brave alpha-male stood aloof, watching her actions.  Clearly, he wasn’t going to lower himself to such a place, groveling at my side.  But, when I stopped for a moment to reassure the timid girl, his bravado dissolved like sugar in water and he was by my side in a matter of seconds, looking for his dose of reassurance.

I laugh as I watch the memory in my mind unfold again.  But then again, my heart sees, in the memory, a picture of myself and the smile is wiped from my face.

Why do we hide from the storms in our life?  What makes us retreat to our safe places—our fraidy-holes—to get out of the wind’s grasp and the crashing fury of the world’s turmoil?

Why do we hide?

He’s not hiding from the storm.

He's not hiding from the storm. He never has. Click To Tweet

He never has.  Never.

In the storm, as steadfast as He has ever been, He works.  Promises are fulfilled, His plans unaltered.

He walks in the storm.  Still.

Not in spite of the storm.  In it.  On it.

I’ve been hiding.  For a long time.

I don’t like the sound of that thunder.  

Earlier this evening, as I practiced with the worship team at the church where we fellowship, I was already considering the words I would write tonight.  

Preoccupied, I was surprised to see these words on the page before me as I sang:

Your sovereign hand will be my guide
Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me.

Out there, the storm is raging, absolutely raging.  Out there, the lightning flashes and the thunder booms.

It is where He is.  And, we get to walk beside him.

Leaning against Him.  Fear overcome by trust.

Out there, He walks.

Why are we still hiding?

 

Your grace abounds in deepest waters
Your sovereign hand will be my guide
Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me
You’ve never failed and You won’t start now.

So I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise, my soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine.
(from Oceans (Where Feet May Fail) ~ Crocker, Houston, Ligthelm ~ © Capitol Music Group ~ All rights reserved.)

 

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you.
    Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you.
    I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.
(Isaiah 41:10 ~ NLT ~ Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. All rights reserved.)

 

 

 
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2017. All Rights Reserved.