Climb It

Is that it?  I expected more.

There have been any number of nights over the last couple of weeks when I’ve sat and wondered.  Surely, I missed something.

I have written every Christmas season for the last few years about the Candlelight Service at the local university.  I’ve been privileged to play my horn in the brass prelude for the beautiful service several decades now.

A few years ago, I said the evening never fails to overwhelm, to lay my heart open before the Creator of the universe.  I never expected less.

I think it was less this year.

Oh, it wasn’t the fault of any of the performers or of the conductor.  The performances were wonderful.  Skillful even.  Well-prepared and talented, there was no fault to be found with any of the participants.

Still,  the big moment never came.  Three nights, I did my part and returned to my seat to listen to the end. 

It was nice.  Christmas-y.

But, there were no tears.  No ecstasy.  No wow! moments.

I did notice that, without it being planned, the first song—and the last—from the stage each night were the same song.  It wasn’t all that wonderful—just odd.

Go Tell It On The Mountain.

Our brass group played it to start the evening—a nice catchy version of the old spiritual.  It was fun.

The main choir sang a version of the song to finish their stage performance, upbeat and catchy as well.  It was fun.

I wasn’t moved by either version.  Not this year.

I’ve spent the year trudging along.  Manual labor and too many steps—every day. 

Somehow, after all the aching muscles and sore feet, I was looking forward to the euphoria of being carried away.  Kind of like a Calgon moment, if you know what I mean.

I did have the same thought in my head as I left each night.  I wondered if there was a reason the music on stage started and ended with the instructions to go and tell it on some mountain.  

I’ve said it at Christmas before:  There are no accidents.

Sometimes, I have to have things pounded into my thick skull.  I’m not the brightest crayon in the box, you know.

I packed up my horn the last night of the program and headed out into the cold to walk the few blocks home.  I was disappointed.

Nothing.  There were no visions, no spine-tingling solos, no ancient conductors who reminded me of the original Conductor.  Just a catchy version of an old spiritual.  A kid’s song, if you will.

It got worse.  I walked home in the cold and had the defining thought for the whole affair.  I even had Siri write a note for me on my phone as I walked.

To tell it on the mountain, one has to first climb the mountain.

Well.  There’s a bit of encouragement.  I’m getting old.  I’m already tired.  And, now I’ve got to climb another mountain.  And, probably another one after that.

Hmmm.  Does it seem as if I’m complaining?  It does, doesn’t it?  Perhaps, I am.

I’ve thought about this for awhile and I want a chance to defend myself.  I want to excuse my churlishness, my complaining.

Haven’t I done enough?

Somehow though, I’m remembering that He climbed a mountain or two in His time on earth.  Walking absolutely everywhere He went, He carried the good news, the gospel, to all who needed to hear—and experience—it for themselves.

He climbed the mountain in Samaria to sit by Jacob’s well and give living water to the woman there.  (John 4:4-26)

He sat on the mount and pronounced blessings to those who would listen to and heed His words.  From that mountain, He gave them, in essence, the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. (Matthew 5-7)

He went one day with a few of his followers to the top of another mountain and somehow met with a couple of men from history.  (Mark 9:2-8)

And then, there was that day He plodded, bloodied and beaten, to the top of the hill where He would die for the sins of the whole world.  (John 19:17-18)

This was a mountain He had been climbing since before the beginning of time.  From the foundation of the earth, He was ordained to climb to the top of that hill and be raised high above it.

It is the mountain He was born to climb.

This Baby we celebrate, with all our pageants and all our concerts—all our lights and all our decorations, was born to climb that mountain and declare good news.  To all people.

I suppose I might be able to climb another hill or two.

I don’t know how beautiful my feet are, but the prophet Isaiah suggested they would be by the time the task is completed.

To tell it on the mountain, one has to first climb the mountain.

To tell it on the mountain, one has to first climb the mountain. Click To Tweet

He did.  The Baby, born in a stable.  The Man, carrying living water.  The Lamb, taking away the sins of the world. 

He did.

Time for me to start climbing again.

You coming with?

 

 

How beautiful on the mountains
    are the feet of the messenger who brings good news,
the good news of peace and salvation,
    the news that the God of Israel reigns!
(Isaiah 52:7 ~ NLTHoly Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007, 2013, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.)

 

Down in a lowly stable 
the humble Christ was born, 
and God sent us salvation 
that blessed Christmas morn.

Go, tell it on the mountain, 
over the hills and everywhere;
go, tell it on the mountain 
that Jesus Christ is born.
(Go Tell It On The Mountain ~ American spiritual ~ adapted by John W Work ~ Educator and historian)

 

 

 

 

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

Please Don’t Dog Ear The Pages

“Oh, yeah.  Tell him I’d like to have a new copy of Watership Down.  I can’t read the one I have now.”

My son, kind man that he is, wants to buy his father a gift for Christmas, even though I’ve said many times that I need nothing.  The Lovely Lady knows better and sends him ideas by text—secretly, she thinks.

We were riding toward home this evening, after a trip to a neighboring town, and my brain jumped to the thought.  As I usually do, I spoke without considering the consequences.

Well, I guess they will not be, strictly speaking, consequences. However, the Lovely Lady now has a new aberration to consider in her husband’s character, thanks to my premature announcement.  (I’m not sure it’s well-advised to give her too many of these points of oddness to think about at one time.)

She probably didn’t expect me to see the eye-roll that preceded her next question.  I suppose I didn’t really see it as much as I felt it.

What’s wrong with the copy on the bookshelf?  It looks perfectly legible to me.

She knew the answer.  She just wanted to hear it from me.

I fell in love with the story many years ago, back when I was young and full of dreams.  I still enjoy reading through it, now that I’m old and full of dreams.  The only problem is, I gave away my old, worn paperback copy back a ways. 

I thought I wouldn’t need it anymore.

We had been in a favorite book shop one afternoon, looking for bargains, when I saw it.  No, I saw IT.

IT was a beautiful hardback, with the dust jacket intact—paper, covered with clear plastic—and crisp, clean pages.  The price, written inside the back cover in pencil was exorbitant, ten times what I would normally pay for a good hardback—fifty times what I’d pay for a decent paperback.

We couldn’t afford it. 

We bought it anyway.

We walked out of the little book store with a near-mint First American Edition of the book.  I would never need to thumb through that old, tattered paperback again.  Never.

The truth of the matter is, I’ve never read the beautiful hardback.  Never.

I never will.  The book’s value is in its rarity, its exclusivity, its pristine condition.

The thing is, when I read, I live.  I eat.  Chocolate and grease stains attest to the fact.  I drink coffee or juice—suitable evidence can be provided.

I carry my books out to the bench in the back yard and, if interrupted rigorously enough, lay them down to scratch the ears of my dogs or play a game of fetch with them. 

I’ve always been told books are your friends, meaning I should handle them with kid gloves, but I don’t treat my friends that way.  I live life with them. 

I leave my mark on them and they leave their mark on me. 

Not so with this hardback.  It may be the worst fifty dollars I ever spent.  I can’t read it, nor can I sell it.  You don’t sell your friends  (unless your name is Judas).

She understands me, the Lovely Lady.  She just likes to make sure I know that, once in a while.

I think she sent a message to our son as we rode.  I don’t know for sure.  My mind was far away.  Even farther away than Watership Down.

Have you ever wondered?  Many do.  I can’t understand how one wouldn’t.

Why did the Savior of the world have to come like this?  Why a baby, born in a stable?  Why did smelly shepherds have to come, and weird foreigners have to follow a strange star?

Why did He live, wandering the land of His birth, homeless and un-celebrated? 

Why did He die a criminal’s death, hanging in shame on a crude cross of wood?

I would have had Him come as a triumphant conqueror, dressed in white and ruling from His palace, far above the smells and cries and demands of the filthy, backward people who walked the roads and worked in the marketplace.

I would have had. . .

Oh.

He came to be a friend to sinners, didn’t He?   

Like any friend, He would leave His mark on us.

And, we would leave our mark on Him.

He would leave His mark on us and we would leave our mark on Him. Click To Tweet

No pristine first edition, He.  Our very own volume, well-worn and dog-eared, to learn from firsthand.

The Word became flesh.  Living with us. (John 1:14)

His life an open book, one might say.

Maybe it’s time to read the book again.

I hope no one will mind if I dog ear a page or two.

                               

 

I wonder as I wander, out under the sky,
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die
For poor ornery people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander, out under the sky.
(I Wonder As I Wander ~ John Jacob Niles ~ © 1945 by G. Schirmer, Inc. All rights reserved.  Used by permission.)

 

 

 

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

What He Said

Well?  What is it?  Desert, or Babylon?

The preacher sat across from me, nursing the same cup of coffee he had purchased over an hour before.  I suppose one might forget the cup in front of him if the conversation was interesting enough.

Still, he wanted an answer to his question.  I didn’t have one.  Not then.

I think I do now.  Maybe I should let him know.  Oh, let him wait.  Our next coffee morning is sure to find us sparring a bit—verbally, I mean—and we’ll discuss it again.

I had mentioned that it was a little hard to pick up my old writing habits in a new place, somewhat unfamiliar to me, and then I referenced the Psalm which wonders how it would be possible to sing the Lord’s song in a strange place.  The people of Judah had been taken into captivity in Babylon and, being asked to sing their familiar praise songs there by the river in that foreign place, declined, breaking down and weeping instead.  (Psalm 137:1-4)

I have been feeling sorry for myself for a few months.  I think perhaps my nobody-loves-me-everybody-hates-me-I’m-going-to-go-to-the-garden-and-eat-worms lament was getting tiresome, so the preacher decided to shut me up about it.

Well?  What if you’re really in the wilderness on your way to the Promised Land instead of in captivity in Babylon?

We bantered about it for a few minutes more and I left—headed back to Babylon—or the desert—whichever.

And yet, like a Labrador puppy with a new toy (or, more likely, an old stick), my mind kept worrying at the question.

Babylon?

Desert?

Oh, what was the difference?  Neither was desirable.  I didn’t want to be in either place.

No. Wait.

Babylon was a place of punishment—a place to go and either die or repent.

The desert, on the other hand, was simply a part of the journey to a country dreamed of for centuries.  A reward, if you will.

Funny.  They complained in both circumstances.

Me, too.

Why is that?  Why do we complain about the process when we know—absolutely know—what’s coming is glorious?

I understand the unhappy folks in Babylon.  They have nothing to look forward to, only dimming memories to hold in their hearts.  It would be nearly impossible to sing their joyous tunes there.

I’m not being punished.

I’ve known, for many years now, I will never arrive at my goal here in this world.  Well, I say “I’ve known”, but I guess I never really believed it.  At least, I don’t live like I believe it.

It’s easy to become complacent, isn’t it?  To begin to be satisfied with less.  Less than what we’ve envisioned.  Less than what has been promised us.

Less.

Because, less is easier.

And the angel of the Lord told young Mary she would have a child and He would be the Son of the Most High—a King who would rule forever.  (Luke 1:30-33)

And Mary said, I’ll take that.  What you said, I’ll take that.  (Luke 1:38)

The angel didn’t explain about the stable.  He didn’t describe the terrifying flight to a foreign country to save the young boy’s life.  Nothing at all was said about the boy wandering off to the temple.

I didn’t read anything about that horrible, horrible day when the Roman soldiers would torture and kill him right before her eyes.

Gabriel, that bright messenger, never told her that would happen.  Not a whisper.

But, she had a promise.  And, she accepted the promise.

Funny.  I also don’t remember ever reading anything about Mary wanting out of the deal.  Ever.

She simply tucked the memories and confirmation away in her heart and she kept up her part of the bargain.  Through the pain and the heart-numbing sorrow, she did her part.

Somehow, I think I may have the wrong things tucked away in my heart.  Somewhere along the way, I’ve forgotten the original deal.

This isn’t the place the story is going to finish.

This isn't the place the story is going to finish. Click To Tweet

Just as the story of Mary’s Baby never ended on that horrible hill, ours won’t be done until our Creator says it is.

Every step—every one—brings us closer to the place of joy and peace He’s promised.

And, along the way, we enjoy His provision.  In the midst of desolation and hardship, He feeds our spirits and sustains us.

The deal stands.

I’ll keep walking.

Milk and honey are still up ahead.

Through the desert.

 

 

I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams…
(from The Little Prince ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry ~ 1900-1944)

 

The Israelites called the food manna. It was white like coriander seed, and it tasted like honey wafers.
(Exodus 16:31 ~ NLTHoly Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007, 2013, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.)

 

 

© 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.

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.