We’ll Say We Did

Let’s not and say we did.

It was just the other day.  Someone suggested he and I should run in a long race a few months from now.  I didn’t take to the suggestion all that well.

Still, I’d like for folks to think I could.

The words came from my mouth without thought.

Let’s not and say we did.

I’m thinking about the words tonight.  Truth be told, I thought about them last night, too.

For most of the night.

With one of the Elders of my fellowship, I sat in the church library during the late morning service on Sunday.  As a member of the worship team, I had already attended the early service, listening attentively to the pastor’s words.  This time, as he preached again, I would relax in comfort and await my cue to go back in for the final song.

I thought that is what I would do.  Relaxing isn’t how I would describe the next half hour.

She didn’t look like she belonged in church.  

We don’t have a dress code—no one expects what we used to call our Sunday best, but her clothes were different in other ways.  Mismatched and fitting her badly, it had been a long time since they had been on the rack in a department store.  There were other physical attributes that reinforced the idea that she hadn’t come to sit with the other worshipers in the service.

“I need to get some help.  Are you guys the deacons?”

She sat down and filled the air with words and the smell of stale tobacco.  We asked a question or two, but she did most of the talking.  No home.  Living in a motel with her children.  Poor health.  Bad luck.  No money.

I was happy to notice the pastor was on his last point in the sermon.  It was my get-out-of-jail-free card.

“I’ve got to go sing.”

Done.  Free.

She’s somebody else’s problem now.  I’m so happy our church will help her in some way.  So happy.

But. . .

I say I follow God.  

Let’s not and say we did.

When I take the easy way out, I make my testimony of following God a lie.

When we take the easy way out, we make our claim of following God a lie. Click To Tweet

I know I should tread lightly here.  That’s what my head tells me.  It would be more comfortable that way.  For me, as well as for those reading this.

Comfortable isn’t how God always works.  Jesus, as He addressed His followers, didn’t ease up to give them a way of escape.

They didn’t get a pass because they were in the choir.

Paying their taxes to the government didn’t offer any relief for His command.

Putting their money in the offering plate at church didn’t alleviate one scintilla of their responsibility.

He didn’t give instructions to the church leaders lurking nearby to start a food pantry.

He didn’t direct words to the government officials in the area to offer a relief program financed with taxes.

With the clarity and plain words of a teacher in the guise of a practiced storyteller, He made it clear that every person has a responsibility to those in need around us.  Every single person.

He looked down through the centuries, straight at us and told us to care for their needs as we would if visited by God Himself.  (Matthew 25: 40, 45)

Let’s not and say we did.

Oh!  I would never!  

But, we do.  

Every time we suggest that government programs fulfill God’s command, we say it.

Every time we breathe a sigh of relief that the benevolence fund at our church fellowship is available for just such people, we tell the lie.

You know—running thirteen miles would be uncomfortable for me.  I’m not going to tell you I did it if I didn’t.

In the same way, I don’t want to claim to be a follower of Jesus, yet refuse to do what He asks me to do to even the least of His sisters and brothers.

But, I have done it before.  You?

It’s time to stop lying.  

To ourselves and to each other.

And, to Him.

 

 

Charity never humiliated him who profited from it, nor ever bound him by the chains of gratitude, since it was not to him but to God that the gift was made.
(Antoine de Saint-Exupery ~ French pilot/author ~ 1900-1944)

 

Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did.
(1 John 2:6 ~ NLT)

 

 

 

 

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

Of Prisms and Vacuums

I closed the door behind the man, having shaken his hand and offered a spoken blessing in reply to his.  

Tears welled up in my eyes as I locked the latch and turned away from the door.  Looking through those translucent prisms, by then running down my cheek, I walked over and flicked the light switches to the off position. 

The rainbow-hued prisms disappeared along with the light overhead, but the vision in my mind remained.

I talk too much.  That won’t be news to many who know me.  But, as the men had wrapped plastic around the old glass counters before carting them out to the moving truck in the parking lot, I couldn’t help reminiscing aloud.

They are the very same glass counters which were in the little music store the first time I walked into it, nearly forty years ago.  Then, the slight, white-haired old man leaned on the edge of the counter in front of him, a quizzical smile playing across his lips.

That is the vision that will not leave my head—the smiling man leaning, hands flat on the glass top of the counter.

Today (perhaps by coincidence; perhaps not) is the anniversary of the old man’s death.  I told the men as much as they worked.

I still miss him.  He was friendly and jolly, as well as stern and thoughtful.  I loved his stories.  I was frustrated by his stubbornness.

I love his daughter.  I love being part of his family.

But, this is not a sad tale, even though I began it in tears.  It’s not.

It is a story of blessings—blessings I can’t begin to count.  They are blessings that are likely to pass on to the third and fourth generation.  Or, so it seems to me.

You remember?  You who were raised in a church and Sunday School?  The words are right there in the Old Testament.

The sins of the fathers will be passed on to the third and even to the fourth generation.  (Exodus 20:5)  Years after the perpetrators are dead, their children will be dealing with the consequences.

You’ve seen it happen, haven’t you? Perhaps not in the extreme that passage brings to mind, but if you’re anything like me, you’ve seen it.

I’ll never be like my father!  How many times did I say it, growing up?  Fathers can make children so frustrated.  And, in our childish frustration, we make promises—assuming we’ll never ever do that thing that made us angry.

Fast forward ten years, perhaps fifteen.  A member of the current crop of teenagers in the house says or does something amiss, and the response comes from deep within us, without consideration.  Immediately, the brain spins back over the years and the chagrin sets in.  

How is it possible that I opened my mouth and my father came out?  How?

But, wait!  I said I would write of blessings, didn’t I?

So, I shall.

Just as the negative habits of our fathers and grandfathers are often stored up to be released at some later date, so too, good habits work to the benefit of future generations.

A heritage of blessings becomes to each succeeding generation a blessing, a way of life, a habitual practice of blessing those who come after.

A heritage of blessings becomes to each succeeding generation a blessing. Click To Tweet

My father-in-law was no exception, nor was my father.  Mothers, grandmothers, grandfathers—not a day goes by that I don’t recognize the blessing of a Godly heritage.

It is part of God’s natural law, if you will.  And, it does not in any way deny His power in changing hearts and in saving by His astounding grace.  

But, with His own hands, He set the worlds in motion, designing the way their inhabitants function, down to the minutest detail.

And, just as those tears in my eyes earlier today made me see momentarily through rainbow-colored prisms, I realize that we see our world with the collective sight of those who have shaped us.  

Good—bad—their influence is unmistakable. 

We function, not in a vacuum (if there is such a thing), but in a constantly changing and ever-expanding world of influence, seen and unseen.  Our every action and reaction has an effect on those around us.

Every one.

There is more, I know.  

When we are drawn by the Spirit and saved by God’s grace, everything changes.  His presence makes us want to do right, and even gives us the power to do it. (Philippians 2:13)

His presence in our lives makes all the difference.

Still, it should increase our understanding of our responsibility to those around us, rather than diminish it.

We have the power to affect the world for generations to come.  We get to choose.

Good.  Bad.

Blessing.  Cursing.

I like Joshua’s thoughts on the matter as he made his choice and declared, with no ambiguity whatsoever, as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. (Joshua 24:15)

Many who have come before in my life have chosen well—some, not so well.  Most of us can relate.

There is no vacuum in which to live.

There may be tears to see through.  

I pray they’ll be tears of joy.  And, tears of temporary sorrow.

Prisms of light through which we see the world clearly.

Blessings.

 

 

 

 

I saw behind me those who had gone, and before me those who are to come. I looked back and saw my father, and his father, and all our fathers, and in front to see my son, and his son, and the sons upon sons beyond.
And their eyes were my eyes.
(Richard Llewellyn ~  Welsh novelist ~ 1906-1983)

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

Smooth Sailing

Battered and beaten.

It’s the only way to describe them.

Every day, we see and hear from them—humanity so tired of swimming against the current and weary of struggling to overcome the storm. They are ready to surrender.

Surrender. I’m considering it myself. Well—I was.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the wind recently. It was especially true today, as I took a break from the struggle of everyday life to walk awhile with the Lovely Lady.

I love spending time with her, but it makes me tired sometimes. Oh, you know what I mean. We walked a couple of miles today, all of it uphill and against the wind.

That may be an exaggeration. I seem to remember a very short time when the wind was not blowing against us—a very short time.

Recently, I wrote of the goodness and mercy that would pursue us all our days—the expectation of the poet who penned Psalm 23. On that occasion, I came to the conclusion that it followed us as we pursued the prize set before us, the time when we will spend eternity with God.

I don’t want to make it sound as if all of life is hardship and trial. It’s not. But, if we are, as I believe to be true, on a pilgrimage, a journey, we are going to have to keep moving ahead.

And frequently, moving ahead means going straight into the wind.  Straight into it.

I heard a blessing, of sorts, spoken the other day. I remember that when I heard it, I immediately decided it was exactly what I needed.

Fair winds, and following seas.

Peaceful, isn’t it? It’s meant to be.

A naval blessing, it is spoken often about a sailor who has died. A smooth passage, aided by gentle breezes and currents moving in the same direction. Difficulty past, ease lies ahead.

I want it now. Today.

But, here’s the thing. While there have been, and will be, times of relative quiet and calm, our calling isn’t to drift along on the current, carried to whatever destination the sea has picked out for us.

I realized something, as I contemplated that phrase earlier, along with the wind the Lovely Lady and I battled on our “relaxing” walk today.

For a few recent days, it seems I actually have had fair winds. The waves, so heavy and angry barely weeks ago, have flattened out and are almost gently rocking the boat on its passage.

At the risk of sounding like a pessimist, I am promising it won’t last. I hope you won’t misunderstand me. It’s a good thing.

Our path has already been charted. Through the waves and the wind, it lies. If, in our fear, we turn the rudder to run ahead of the storm, we will never reach the harbor. Never.

If, in our fear, we turn the rudder to run ahead of the storm, we will never reach the harbor. Click To Tweet

It is only through the storm, braving the wind, that we will reach those fair winds and following seas.

As we enter the harbor, battles fought, storms past, we will finally rest from our labor.

I’m not in harbor yet; the voyage is not yet completed.

But, at least for right now, the current is flowing the same direction I am. For a little while.

The Teacher said the words to His exhausted friends. Come away with me. (Mark 6:31-34)

They, ready to drop, welcomed the promise of rest. Perhaps, they misunderstood. The rest they expected never happened. The following crowds caught up to them, needing to be healed and then to be fed. And then, their beloved Teacher stuck them on a boat in the middle of the lake with a storm blowing up.

Terrified. Tired. Confused.

They rowed frantically, making no headway against the storm.

He walked to them upon the wild waves and, clambering over the side of the boat, reminded them they needed to rest.

Okay. What He said was that they had no reason to fear.

It means the same thing.

The Savior who walks on the storm is in control. On dry land—on glassy smooth seas—in the wildest, stormiest night—He speaks peace. Still.

Fair winds, and following seas will be ours.  They will.

The harbor lies up ahead.  Really.

The waves and wind still know His voice.

Rest.

 

 

Are there no foes for me to face?
Must I not stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend to grace,
To help me on to God?
(from Am I A Soldier Of The Cross by Isaac Watts ~ English hymnwriter ~ 1674-1748)

 

Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.
(Augustine of Hippo ~ Early Christian Theologian ~ 354-430)

 

 

 

 

 

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

The Wind Blows

The wind roars, simply roars, through the leaves of the tall London plane tree outside my window.  It is frightening enough that the dogs are afraid to stay outside for much longer than it takes to devour their food and lap their tongues in the water dish a time or two before ducking back into their house.

I sit in my easy chair and listen to it blow.  And, just as the Teacher promised, I couldn’t tell you where it blew in from, nor where it will end up. (John 3:8)

I don’t know.

Funny.  I’ve been saying that a lot recently.  I said it to the nice lady from the local newspaper today.

She wanted to know what’s next.

I don’t know.

The leaves, blown around by the wind, scratch against the back door and I laugh.

She wanted to know where I came from.  I wondered if she thought it would help to figure out where I’m to go from here.

It won’t.

I recited the familiar words to her earlier today and suddenly realized it’s the first time I’ve told the story and all of it—every sentence and every word—was in the past tense.  

Over.  Done.

The words I said seemed strangely altered from the dozens of times I have recited them in recent weeks.  Then, I was still a part of the story.  Now, my part in that story is history.

So, what about the wind?  Would it help to know where it came from?

Would it be comforting to know where it is going?

Perhaps.  But, I’m thinking the more important thing is to dwell in the place to which He has brought us, as we’re being prepared for the place He is moving us to.

Dwell.  It’s an interesting word.  We usually think of it as a sense of staying somewhere permanently.

Well, sure we do.  The Psalmist averred that he would dwell in the house of the Lord.  Forever.  (Psalm 23:6)

See there?  Dwell forever.

Dwell.

But, my eyes are drawn to the words preceding that in the poetry of the Psalmist.  You know, the part where he says that goodness and unfailing love would pursue him all his life.

One has to be moving if they are to be pursued.

One has to be moving if they are to be pursued. Click To Tweet

I remember—years ago when I was young and loved old cars—I remember setting the ignition points on the old jalopies.  Now, computers do such things for us, but then, we had to make the adjustments to keep the mechanical beasts functioning at the top of their potential.  As I remember it, we used to set something in the ignition cycle that was called the dwell.

It was a momentary resting of one part on another.  The time between movement—a rest with seemingly nothing happening—was in reality the instant that propelled the vehicle from one place to another. During the dwell, the spark was transferred from one contact to the other, where it could start the combustion that is necessary for the motor to have power.

The dwell was absolutely essential. Of course, so was the activity in between these resting places.

The power to go forward depends on both.  Resting and acting.

Dwelling.  And, moving on.

I’ve heard people describe the wind in the treetops in various ways—singing, whispering, laughing.  I have no such gentle words with which to describe it. I guess I’d characterize the wind tonight as the lead singer in a heavy metal rock band.

You know, yelling and screaming at the top of its voice.

It’s what I feel like—a little—recently.

And yet, I’m learning to dwell in the quiet places.  And, letting go in the windy ones.

I can’t tell you where the gusting wind came from, nor can I tell you where it will stop.

But, it’s okay.

Finally, it’s okay.

The Teacher—you know, the One who promised we would wonder—He knows where the wind comes from and where it is going.

He does.

And, He knows what’s next—as well as how I’m going to get there.

He knows what's next—as well as how I'm going to get there. Click To Tweet

Listen to the wind blow!

 

 

 

 

Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me
    all the days of my life,
and I will live in the house of the Lord
    forever.
(Psalm 23:6 ~ NLT)

 

Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I. 
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.
(Christina Rossetti ~ English poet ~ 1830-1894)

 

 

 

 

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

Home and Warm

I nearly tripped over her in the dark.

The coal-black Labrador was lopped across the back stoop when I stepped out a few moments ago. Her brother, almost as black, wasn’t far away.

It is twenty-four degrees outside.  The wind-chill (if you believe in such things) is below twenty.

Their heated doghouse, with its cedar-mulch covered floor is thirty-five feet away.

Why in the world are they lying in this corner of the yard with the wind whistling around them?

I, being much more intelligent, scurried to take care of my errand and get back to my fire-side easy chair.  Warm.

Home and warm.

But, I sit beside my warm fire and absently-mindedly pursue an elusive shadow through the dark and chilly pathways of my memory.  Now, what was that?

Dogs lying outside the door waiting for their master. . .

Sleeping in the cold when they could have been home and warm. . .

David was a man after God’s own heart.  Now, where did that come from?  Ah!  Now, I have it!

Uriah (who was a fighting man from a pagan tribe) refused to go home to his warm bed and his waiting wife.  Uriah the Hittite waited outside the door of the king’s house—cold and sleepless.  (2 Samuel 11:9-13)

But, honorable.  

More honorable than the man who dwelled within, Uriah was certain that comfort was not his until all could live in comfort.  He would wait until he had completed his task.  An honorable man.

Almost like the dogs who lie outside my back door. Their allegiance is to their master. All they want is a word from his mouth and his hand gently scratching their chest.  

It is enough. Payment in full for waiting in the cold.

I like being home and warm. You? 

Stupid question, huh?

Comfort is what we want. But, we have no promise of comfort. Yet.

This world can be a cold place. Cold and dark.

Our destination is anything but those. If, as our lessons in science led us to believe, light produces heat, we’ll have no lack of either light or warmth there.

The One we serve is (unlike me—or King David) honorable far above our understanding. He won’t leave us out in the cold one moment past what is necessary.

One day—one day—the door will open and we’ll be home.  

Home and warm.

 

One day—one day—the door will open and we'll be home. Home and warm. Click To Tweet

 

And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb is its light.
(Revelation 21:23 ~ NLT)

 

Turn up the lights.  I don’t want to go home in the dark.
(O. Henry ~ American author ~ 1862-1910)

 

 

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

Leaving

He had tears in his eyes.

I thought about that for many of the eight hundred and fifty miles it took to make the journey from my childhood home to the place which has been home to me for all of the forty years since that day. 

Exactly forty years ago today, I arrived in this little town.  One of my old friends jogged my memory of what day it was as we reminisced together one recent evening. 

The first day of winter in 1976 saw me packing every possession I owned in the little yellow Chevy and leaving my home in south Texas to make the one day journey north.  To what, I had no idea.

He had tears in his eyes.

The man I can’t say I ever really knew as a child, even though I had spent nineteen years living in the same house with him.  The man who had taught me so much about forgiveness and grace, but from whom I never heard the words, I’m sorry.  The man who was unmoved by the maudlin; untouched by the mushy emotion of human drama, was crying as he said goodbye to me.

I don’t remember ever seeing tears in his eyes before.  I’m sure now that he had cried in that time, but he was never one to show emotion to his children.  He disciplined and rewarded us; he taught and rebuked us; he provided all the necessities and encouraged us to be self-sufficient.  We saw the different facets of what a father did, but he did it without undue emotion and effusiveness.

Yet, he was crying as I pulled out of the driveway.  To say it was a moving experience (with absolutely no pun intended) would be a drastic understatement.

I don’t recall what he said as we parted.  I don’t remember if he gave me any money or last minute advice on life.  But, whenever I think about leaving home, I remember the tears in the eyes of the man whom I had always counted on to be rock solid.

Big boys don’t cry. 

I reminded myself as I pulled away from the house.  It didn’t work.

They do—and I did.

It was the best going away present a man could give his son.  In retrospect, I wish he had been able to do that earlier in my life, so I could have started learning the lesson I’m still absorbing.

There is no shame in showing your feelings. None. 

God designed us to feel emotions.

A lot of pain could be averted if we would simply allow the people we love to know how deeply we feel for them.  Words are good, but the emotions which spring from our hearts and move us to tears—or joy—or even fear, teach and reassure so much more than mere words.

I realized on that day, a significant date in my journey to manhood, that real men aren’t afraid to cry.

There have been a lot of other firsts in the forty years since that day for me.  First marriage (okay—the only one).  First child.  First snowstorm.  First time I was fired (I keep telling myself it wasn’t a real job anyway).  First day in business.  First car wreck (the other car was parked).  First time a policeman drew his gun on me (last time too, I hope).  The list could go on and on.

Some of the firsts have been monumental, some coincidental.  Not many have been more eye-opening than on that day thirty-five years ago, when for the first time, I saw my Dad cry over me.

This week we celebrate the leaving home of another Son.

This was no heading out without purpose, no going where circumstances took him.  This Son left His home to perform a specific task.

His Father knew, as the child left to go on His journey, that it would end badly (from a father’s perspective).  He also knew the journey and its end would achieve an amazing victory, a history-changing paradigm shift.  So He stood by and let His Son go.

Did God cry when His Son left home? Click To Tweet

Did He cry?  I don’t know.

I like to think He did.  Still, I don’t know.

I do know His heart was moved with Fatherly pride as the boy grew into a man (Matthew 3:17) and that in the pain of loss He couldn’t watch as the inevitable end came (what father could?), but turned away.  (Mark 15:34)

I really don’t know if God cries the way we experience it.

I do know He cares about us more than any physical father ever has—that He wants us to be with Him in the worst way. 

That’s what Christmas is about.

The manger, the shepherds, the wise men and the star?  They’re just incidental. 

The Baby came for one purpose.  To die.  For me and for you. 

I’m thinking if God does cry, it might be because some of us choose to remain separated from Him.  Grace is ours for the taking because of the Son who left His home that day so many years ago. 

My journey from home, forty years ago, is of no consequence in the grand scheme of the universe—my father’s tears of little moment in history. 

But, the reminder of both for me at this season, points dramatically to the real reason for our celebration. 

I’ll draw my loved ones close.  I’ll embrace some whom I don’t know, but who need to feel His love. 

I even might, as I contemplate a Father’s love, shed a tear or two of my own.

I am, after all, a big boy. 

And, big boys certainly do cry.

 

 

You keep track of all my sorrows.
    You have collected all my tears in your bottle.
    You have recorded each one in your book.
(Psalm 56:8 ~ NLT)

 

A little girl once asked, “Mommy does God cry?”
“Don’t be silly, God can’t cry, baby,” her mother replied.

“But what about when He looks down from Heaven above
And sees all the people who need His love?

And what about when He looks down and sees
The playground kids fall and scrape their knees?

Or how about Aunt Jane who can’t have baby girls or boys?
Or what about the poor kids who get no Christmas toys?

Maybe God would cry if He lived with my friend Tommy.
Whose daddy beats and bruises him and his mommy.

Or maybe if He looked down and saw people being killed,
I think He’d surely have eyes that are tear-filled.

But I think most of all, Mommy, what would have made God cry,
Is when He looked down at the cross and watched His baby die.”

The mother stood in silence as her eyes filled with tears,
For she knew her little girl was wise beyond her years.

Staring into deep blue eyes, the mother found courage to say,
“Yes baby girl, I think God looks down and cries every day.”
(Anonymous)

 

 

 

 

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

Listening to Linus

It’s almost impossible for the words and thoughts to come together when the well has run dry.

The statement comes from the preacher’s mouth, weariness in his eyes.  It is a reality he knows in his heart.  He does.  He just buried his wife’s father.  There is more—for him, an avalanche of trials.  He knows.

I nod my head in agreement.  I too, have felt it.  The drought.  Pain—and sorrow—and loss—all have drained the well dry.

No joy.  No words.  No voice.

Mute.

And yet, I hear another voice in my mind tonight.  Strangely, it is the voice of a cartoon character.  

Linus, the blanket-hugging friend of Charlie Brown, has taken center stage and called for the lights.  Simply and clearly, he quotes the Christmas story from Luke 2 (verses 8-14), and walks offstage to tell Charlie Brown that’s what Christmas is all about.

Good tidings of great joy.  To all people.

I’m part of all people.  My preacher friend is too.  Probably, you are as well.  Okay, not probably.  You are.

All means all.

I’ve said it before:  There is joy in the journey.

It’s the kind of thing you say when things are going well.  The kind of thing one writes about when the heart is full.

And still, I promise that it is ever the truth, and I reiterate it even tonight.  

In the middle of the darkest night, with the path in front barely lit to see the next step, I affirm that joy accompanies us in the dark.

Even when the well seems dry, the voice mute, joy endures.

Great joy.

Even when the well seems dry, the voice mute, joy endures. Great joy. Click To Tweet

The Baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger was in for a rough ride.  For years, there wouldn’t be much joy to be found, either for Him or for all people.

It didn’t make the proclamation of the angels a lie.

Oh, there were moments of triumph.  He would teach the teachers; miracles would be performed, storms quieted.  Crippled folks would walk and blind men see.  There were brilliant moments of joy along the way to astounding darkness.

Funny.  The only way to the great joy that would be to all people was through the worst thing that could happen.

For the great joy that was set before Him, he endured even the shame of the cursed crucifixion. (Hebrews 12:2)

We follow Him.  It’s what we claim, isn’t it?

Great joy lies on that road—the road of following.  Sadness, too.  Perhaps even, a good bit of disappointment.  

Mostly though, joy.

And, in the end—all joy.  

Great joy.

Still, we follow.

 

 

Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.
(John 7:38 ~ NIV)

 

Sure on this shining night
Of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.
The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth.
Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand’ring far
alone
Of shadows on the stars.
(Sure on this Shining Night ~ James Agee ~ American novelist/poet ~ 1909-1955)

 

 

 

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

Conducted

It is a moment to be committed to memory—a moment filled with sight and sound—a moment to be returned to again and again.

The sound part of the memory, I can explain well enough.  I am a musician and understand melody and harmony, attacks and cutoffs, crescendos and decrescendos.  

I know how the members of musical groups interact with each other, listening—adjusting—blending.  It takes all the skill of most seasoned musicians to simply begin and end a piece at the same time, with reasonable rhythmic similarity in between.

But, the tears coursing down my cheeks are not to be explained so cavalierly.  The quietness that has fallen over the audience has nothing to do with the knowledge of tone and timbre, or with intonation.

But, I haven’t given much to go by, have I?  Possibly a paragraph or two of explanation will help.

For the last thirty-five years, give or take a year or two, I have sat at Christmastime in the beautiful old cathedral, with its oak panels and stained glass.  It has changed a lot in the last thirty-five years.  

So have I.

Candlelight Service.  It’s what they call it.  A plain brown wrapper that hides a treasure waiting to be uncovered, nearly every time.  I’ve been privileged to have a small part in the service for most of the years I’ve been there.

Tonight, after my small part was complete, I sat in the creaky old pew and waited for the whole thing to be over.

It’s been a rough year.  I’m having a hard time accepting changes I didn’t ask for.  I had a plan, yet things aren’t working out quite as I had envisioned.  Well, now that I think of it, not at all as I had envisioned.

I’m not much in the mood to get in the Christmas spirit.  So, I’m waiting for it all to be over instead.  I know I’ll get my wish.  Another few weeks and I’ll be home free.  Right?

The choir, led by a man I love and respect, a man who after thirty years is leading for his last time this Christmas, has just finished a very nice rendition of What Wondrous Love.  It was very nice.

Something is happening, though.  The man leaves his podium to stand near the piano and a young fellow is assisting a feeble-looking woman up the steps to the stage.  This is different.

As the octogenarian lady alights the podium, it is easy to see that she is anything but feeble.  Her stance behind the music stand makes it clear that she is in her element; the attention of the young folks in the risers is riveted on her face and hands.

She holds no baton.  She needs none.  From the first quiet notes of the piano, that much is evident.

The First Noel.  

Most in the audience have heard the carol a thousand times.  Maybe more.  I will admit, this arrangement is beautiful.

Most of the time, when I listen to this choir, I watch the musicians as they sing.  Forty or fifty college students—some of them music majors, others following various fields of study—have worked hard to prepare for this event.  They deserve the attention.

And yet, all I can see now is the lady on the podium.  As it turns out, it is all the young people in the risers see, too.  They will not take their eyes off of her for the next four minutes.

For my part, from the first notes the tears flood, literally flood, my eyes.  Still, the lady fills my sight.  Her hands, gnarled and aged, are beautiful in their communication of her wishes.  A tiny wave this way and the sopranos are singing the melody.  A little wiggle of her fingers and the volume drops as if someone has turned a knob on a stereo.  Then she motions to the whole group and the beautiful sound fills the great cathedral.

Suddenly, in an insight that does nothing to help my tears abate, I understand.  Taking nothing away from the abilities of the young singers, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the musician here is the ancient conductor standing in front of them.  They are simply the instruments upon which she plays.

Every note—every whisper of a sound—comes at the whim of her direction.  And these young singers understand that and give her exactly what she wants.

The result is nothing short of breath-taking.  Literally.  Breath-taking.

As the last notes die down in the cathedral, it seems to me that even the candles burning in the aisles momentarily flicker as the bated breath of nearly a thousand listeners is exhaled in the same instant.

What a sacred moment.

I’m not just talking about the music.  That was indeed, nothing short of astonishing.

But, God speaks through His handiwork and His servants.  If our eyes are open and our ears prepared to hear, He speaks.  To us, He speaks.

If our eyes are open and our ears prepared to hear, He speaks. To us, He speaks. Click To Tweet

I want to say more.

I don’t think I need to tonight.

It’s time for us to follow the Conductor.

What astonishing music He wants to make.

Astonishing.

 

 

 

 

And do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as  instruments of righteousness to God.  
(Romans 6:13 ~ NASB)

 

A great work of art is made out of a combination of obedience and liberty.
(Nadia Boulanger ~ French conductor ~ 1887-1979)

 

 

 

 

 

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

Offerings

The young voices sing in tight harmony, the air surrounding us almost trembling with astonishment at the beauty of their song.  We in the pews are in agreement with the atmosphere; to a person it seems, holding our breaths, not wanting to miss a note or a chord.

The carol began as a common Christmas song—with familiar words and melody—but it has become much more than that.  The young artists, led by that genius with a stick in his hand, started with the simple familiar tune and turned it into a symphony, a masterpiece of beautiful music and brilliant poetry.

Quietly, scarcely louder than a whisper, the voices draw us upward until, with more volume than seems possible from those young throats and greater skill than seems imaginable from musicians so inexperienced, we are overcome with wonder and with awe.

We who sit in the hard seats and listen have been carried far beyond the restraints of our time and circumstances.  For a moment which seemed an eternity, our spirits soared with the melodies and harmonies that have drawn us into the very presence of the King of Christmas.

It has always been so for me.  This music has power—power to soothe the spirit—power to move the soul—power to draw the heart from its deepest, darkest hiding place and lay it open before the Creator of all the Universe.

I know it is not the same for all.  My life has been full of music from the day I was born, until now in my waning years.  Many have had different experiences and have also lived joyfully.  I freely admit it.

Still—music moves me.

Can I go a step further and tell you what else moves me?

Just as much as the music.

It may come as a shock to the reader.  It did to me.

You see, I sit in the beautiful cathedral and am moved to tears by nothing more than sound in the air—that and the Spirit of God—and somehow, it feels natural and right.

But just this week, in my place of business, I was also moved to tears. . .

The old man had been in before.  He had The Look.  You know, that look in his eyes—almost empty, but a little wild, a little confused, and perhaps even, dangerous.  He shuffled in, shoulders slumped, a defeated shell of a man, without hope.

He is homeless, or nearly so.  Drifting from one relative to another, living under the stars when the weather permits, he calls no place home, but any place he lies down his bedroom.

He had a guitar to sell.  I’ve told his story before.  Well, not his, but the same basic story anyway.  No money, no food, the urge to find funds has led him to my door.  The guitar would feed him for a few days anyway.

Or, so he thought.

I didn’t want his guitar.

It is damaged and worn now.  It was not much better when it was new.  If I had bought it, the guitar-shaped-object would have found a semi-permanent home in my back room, a room which is already packed full by too many cheap, broken guitar-shaped-objects.

I didn’t want the guitar.  I told him so.

The wild eyes turned angry for a few seconds, and I worried that things might get ugly.  Then, he shrugged his shoulders and looking dejected, turned to go.

I wasn’t done, though.  I know, after years of sleepless nights and remorse-filled days, that it was not my place to turn him away without help.  I reached into my pocket and pulled out a couple of bills which I laid on the counter for him.  Immediately, the angry eyes were back and he waved away my offer disgustedly.

He didn’t want my hand-out.  He wanted to sell his guitar.

Quickly, I explained my dilemma.  Motioning with my arms at the guitars leaning against the back wall and the cases stacked in the aisles, I told him that I can’t—just can’t—acquire another guitar to repair.  Without disparaging his instrument, I made it clear.  I simply don’t need his guitar.

Again, I held out the money and begged—yes—I begged him to take it.  I suggested he could still sell the guitar to someone else who needs it.  For a moment, his demeanor brightened, as he saw a way to get more than he expected when he first came through my door.

Then another idea came to him.

“I’ll accept your gift.  But, I’m not going to sell this guitar.”  The old guy proudly gestured with the instrument.  “I know this guy who’s staying down by the tracks.  He says he plays, but he doesn’t have a guitar to use.  I’ll give this one to him.”

He reached a gnarled hand across the counter, first to take the gift I offered, and then again to grip mine in that ancient symbol of equality and respect, a handshake.

I looked into his eyes.

That’s funny.

They were as clear as a bell.  No anger.  No confusion.  No defeat.

Did I say they were clear?  I meant to say that they were clear except for the tears that welled up in the corners of each one.  As he let go of the firm grip he had on my hand, there were tears in my own eyes, as well.

He headed for the door.  I’m pretty sure he was taller than when he came in.  At least, his head was held up and the slump he had when he arrived was gone.

As he stepped outside, I heard his voice,  “God bless you, friend.”

I can’t explain it, but I felt chills.  Something like I felt when I listened to those young folks singing last night.

Something like it.

The apostle said that when we walk in love, our God smells a sweet aroma, as He did when His Son came for us.

When we walk in love, our God smells a sweet aroma Click To Tweet

This Christmas, as I worship in the beauty and opulence of the cathedral, with its stained glass windows and high ceilings, and all of it trimmed in oak, I’m going to remember that somewhere, out there in the cold and dirty world, a man plays a guitar.

The music inside might be prettier and more skilled.

I don’t know.

Somehow, I think the Savior of the world—the One who came as a baby on that first Christmas—I think He might consider the sound of that guitar playing down by the railroad tracks just a little sweeter.

Just a little.

A sweet aroma.

 

 

A song will outlive all sermons in the memory.
(Henry Giles ~ American minister/author ~ 1809-1882)

 

And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
(Ephesians 5:2 ~ ESV)

 

 

 

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

Of Advent—and Spit

Oh, that’s just gross!  Why do you guys have to do that on the floor?

It was about this time of year, a few years past.  

My little brass group had just finished practicing and were quickly moving our chairs and stands off the stage.  The choir had a rehearsal scheduled right after us and we wanted to be out of their way.  The young man speaking was one of several moving equipment back into the space we were vacating.

I looked at the floor, but saw nothing out of the ordinary.  Quizzically, I looked at the young man.

He gestured in a wide circle, indicating spots of liquid standing in close proximity to where the chairs had been moments ago.

“This—this—spit!  What is it with brass players?”

He shuddered once for effect and turned away without waiting for an answer.  The instrumentalists around me who had heard the exchange laughed, a condescending dismissal of the young vocalist’s squeamishness.

Yes.  I want to talk about spit.  

It’s a conversation I’ve been waiting to have for many years.

No one has ever wanted to discuss the matter with me.  I wonder why that is.

Perhaps, I should begin by explaining the liquid which is left on the stage when wind players complete their performances or rehearsals. The liquid is not spit.  

That’s right.  Not spit.

It’s merely condensation.  It’s what occurs when you blow warm, moist air into a cold metal tube.  Almost exactly what happens when you enter a cold automobile on a winter’s evening.  The windows fog up.  Do you call that moisture on the windshield spit?  Of course not.

So.  The irate young man was wrong.  Only condensation—not spit.

But still, I would like to talk about spit.

On a day in the music store not long ago, a mother stood with her brood of children, awaiting her turn at the checkout.  She looked down at the oldest of the four urchins and noticed a black mark on his cheek.

Without hesitation, she licked her thumb and rubbed his skin.  The black mark didn’t disappear, but it was less noticeable than before.  

The same couldn’t be said for the young man’s indignation.

“Did you just put spit on my face?”  He sputtered in his frustration.  “Why would you do that?”

The mother’s attempt at an explanation was only met with more disgust, and the young man stalked out to the parking lot to await his family in solitude.  He turned his face to glare back at the group as he exited.  The black mark was still there—smudged, but very much in evidence.

My mind goes back again.  

I remember hearing the story when I was a child, not much older than that indignant young man.  You may find it in the book of John in the Bible. (John 9)

The blind man stood, as he always had, waiting for something.  Something.  But, he didn’t know what it was he awaited.  

He had always been blind.  From the day he had arrived, squalling and screaming, light had never passed from his eyes to his brain.  Never.

He didn’t ask for anything.  He just waited.

The Teacher let His followers argue the existential questions for a moment or two.  Why?  Who?  How?  

They were the wrong questions.

Jesus had been sent to bring light to the world.  Here was His big opportunity.  

Time to impress with big words and ostentatious prayers.  He would wave His hands in the air and—Wait!  What is He doing?

He spit in the dirt.  

Spit.  In the dirt.

Then He mixed up some mud and, hands filled with the gross mixture, stood and slathered the slimy stuff on the blind man’s unseeing eyes.

“Did you just spit in my eyes?”

Duccio_di_Buoninsegna_-_Healing_of_the_Blind_ManThe words aren’t recorded, but one wonders.  Did the man hear the Teacher spit on the ground?  His ears, acutely trained to be his guide since he had no eyes, must have heard.  They must have detected the sound of dirt being mixed with the spit, and then recognized the rustle of robes, as the Master stood again.

Did he back away, putting his hand up to keep the ghastly stuff off of him?

No.  He stood, listening to the Man speak, giving His instructions.  He went, still blind, and washed the mud from his eyes.  

What an astounding result!  

Light, pure and clear, streamed through the once useless orbs.  Familiar voices spoke to him and, for the first time in his life, he put faces with the voices.  

He saw his home!  And his family!

Light shone in darkness—just not in the way anyone would ever have anticipated.

Spit.  What a gross thing!  

Why would Jesus have used spit, of all things?  

I have no answer.

I do know this.  We who believe are even now in the time of year we call Advent.  

Waiting.  

Waiting for the Salvation of God to appear.

Just a warning.  It won’t be pretty.

Or sanitary.

Not even a little sanitary.

A baby will be born in a barn, among the filth and stench.  Dirty shepherds will come, not clean and freshly bathed, but straight from the dust and filth of caring for their livestock.  Stinking and crusted with grime.

The end of the story won’t be any more sanitary.  Bloody and sweat-covered, nailed to a cross of wood, He will die.

It won’t be pretty.  It won’t be romantic.  It won’t smell good, with aromatic candles fluttering in the breeze.

The little boy in my store didn’t understand that his mom wanted only for him to be clean.  All he saw was the spit.

I wonder.  We’re waiting.  

With the blind man, we’re waiting—for light.

It might not be as pretty as we’d like.  Perhaps not as dramatic, either.

A baby who is born in a barn can’t be all that powerful, can He?

His light comes softly, and in unexpected ways.

His light comes softly, and in unexpected ways. Click To Tweet

I think I’ll stand here and wait.  

You?

 

 

We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.
(C.S. Lewis ~ British theologian/novelist ~ 1898-1963)

 

 

…but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen,the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
(1 Corinthians 1:27-31 ~ NASB)

 

 

 

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