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.

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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.

Shadows

Winter Solstice.  

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

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

Or, it may not.

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

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

Shadows.  I worry about shadows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, I wonder—why this month?

Oh, but what a contrast!  Night and Day!

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

The glory of the Lord shone round about them?

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

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

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

To all people

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

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

Light trumps darkness every time.

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

Worship Christ, the newborn King.

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

On a Clear Day

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

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

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

I thought she was right.

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

I could see it vividly, on those clear days.

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

They’re not all clear days.

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

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

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

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

Step by slogging step, the road goes past.

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

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

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

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

Here is what I do know:  

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

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

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

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

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

The truth.

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

There’s enough light for that.

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

Barbra needed her clear day.

We’ve got a light for the darkest night.

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

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

Still Ringing In My Head

Bells!

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

Joy to all people.  All is well.

Lesson learned.  Can we move on now?
__________

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

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

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

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

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

Bells!  What is it with the bells?

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

But, little girls grow up and go to school.

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

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

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

Yep.  A bell.

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

And again.

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

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

What was I missing?

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

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

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

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

Stupid bells!

I reached for the remote, but something stopped me.

The music was beautiful.

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

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

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

Old familiar carols.

Bells.  Playing old familiar carols.  Who knew?

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

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

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

No. Not on the television.  In my mind.

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

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

Beautiful bells.

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

I miss my Mom.
__________

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

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

Peace on earth.  Good will to man.

Joy.

I thought I had learned the lesson.

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

We need to be reminded.

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

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

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

I’ll wait.  And while I wait?

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

Face Toward Home

Home.

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

For most folks, they do.

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

Still, my mind drifts back again.  

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll take one last trip home.  

Closure.  The long chapter will be finished.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.  It’s not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be with my Father.

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

But, I want to be with my Father.

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

It’s out there still.  Just up ahead.

I can almost see the lights from here.

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

Hearts Racing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only for a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The world spun.  

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

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

Not in control.  It’s a terrifying feeling.  

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

Not in control.

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

For us.  Of His own volition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For all of humanity.

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

There are still tears in my eyes.

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

Again.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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