Tell me the Story

In moments when I least expect it, clarity arrives.

I sat, with others around me, in a service the other day and noticed the lady at the keyboard. I know her. She was my neighbor for upwards of fifteen years. I have heard her sing. I have heard her play.

All I expected was to enjoy the music—possibly to reflect on some lyrics. It would be nice.

Nice isn’t what happened.

I hope you won’t mind. I think we call it epiphany. With a small “e”.

An arrival. A light, small but bright, blazed as my friend sang the old familiar hymn. I have never thought of it before. Never.

Tell me the story of Jesus,
Write on my heart every word.
Tell me the story most precious,
Sweetest that ever was heard.

I can’t tell you how many times I have sung the words. But, in her simple gift of song, the words shone with a clarity I’ve not known any other time.

The writer of the letter written to the Hebrews describes it as the fulfillment of a promise made long before. In your hearts, He will place His commandments, and on your minds they will be written indelibly. (Hebrews 10:16-17)

Is a little of that light shining through yet? Maybe, it’s just me.

Every word. Written on my heart.

Every word. Written on my heart. Click To Tweet

I am moved. Overwhelmed, even. But, the light shines on past the initial reaction and I start to wonder.

Is it just for me that He has written on my heart and in my mind?

You indulged me when I wanted to call it an epiphany. Will you indulge me a bit further?

I know the heart mentioned in the Book isn’t the physical, beating organ, but it is the center of our very being—the existence of which we cannot function without. If the physical heart circulates the life blood our brain and entire body must have for life, surely the symbolic heart we describe must circulate the very essence of who we are.

If we follow Christ, He is the essence of our being. Circulating through our veins.

So, I ask again: Is it only for my benefit that He lives within my being?

It is for my benefit. To that, there can be no argument. But, what of those around me? Those who have sin—and loss—and, in the end, death—written on their hearts?

He has put eternity in our hearts!  How could we keep that quiet?

The Apostle—my namesake—lays out the process.  How shall they call on Him unless they believe?  How will they believe unless they hear?  How could they possibly hear if we don’t tell them? (Romans 10:14)

He is the foundation, the Rock at the center of our existence!  How could we hide it?

How could we not tell the story?  How could we not ourselves write the words which have been written in our heart?  Or, speak them?  Or, sing them?

Every word, every action declares who (and whose) we are.

Well, well.  An epiphany in the season of Epiphany.  A small light as we acknowledge the Light of the World.

The Word who was born in a stable, in reality came to be inked on our hearts.  And, He invites us to share His story by sharing our own.

The Word.  Written on our hearts.

To be written on the hearts of others.

Time to tell the story. 

Again.


There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.
(Maya Angelou ~ American Poet ~ 1928-2014)

If I told you my story
You would hear Hope that wouldn’t let go.
And, if I told you my story
You would hear Love that never gave up.
And, if I told you my story
You would hear Life, but it wasn’t mine.

If I should speak, then let it be
Of the grace that is greater than all my sin,
Of when justice was served and where mercy wins,
Of the kindness of Jesus that draws me in.
Oh, to tell you my story is to tell of Him.

If I told you my story
You would hear Victory over the enemy.
And, if I told you my story
You would hear Freedom that was won for me.
And, if I told you my story
You would hear Life overcome the grave.

If I should speak, then let it be
Of the grace that is greater than all my sin,
Of when justice was served and where mercy wins,
Of the kindness of Jesus that draws me in.
Oh to tell you my story is to tell of Him.
(Music Publishing LLC, Open Hands Music (SESAC) (All rights on behalf of itself and Open Hands Music adm. by Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC)
Writers: Mike Weaver / Jason Ingram

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Nothing Up My Sleeves

I still remember that evening, decades ago though it was.

My first magic show.  Words will never do the memory justice.

In the parking lot of the local Sears store, the stage stood, ready to snare the attention of any passing urchin with its bright spotlights and mysterious contraptions.

I was snared.  Captivated even.

Rabbits and doves out of a hat.  Handkerchiefs out of the mouth.  Water in cups which turned into confetti when tossed on the onlookers.  A beautiful woman sawed in half.

With mouth agape and eyes glued on the flashy showman,  I didn’t miss a move.

I thought.

I wanted to be a magician.  Nothing else mattered.  Forgotten was the determination to be a fireman, followed closely by the idea that a doctor’s life might be more rewarding.  I would be a magician.

Dad had an old magic kit in the garage and, immediately, I dug it out to began practicing for my life’s vocation.

Voracious reader that I was, I couldn’t wait to check out a volume or three at the local library on the mysterious art.

I wasn’t prepared for the disappointment.

It took no time at all to learn everything I needed to know about magic and magicians.

Magic was all trickery and deception.  All of it.

The men who practiced it?  Con men.  Charlatans.

Lies and sleight-of-hand.  Nothing more.

I wanted to do amazing acts and see magic (the real thing!) happen. There is no such thing.  Magic is all misdirection and props hidden up the sleeves.

What an unhappy let down!  And, what a disillusioned young boy!

                             

I’m older now.  Much older.

With the apostle who shares my name, I want to believe when I became a man, I put away childish things. (1 Corinthians 13:11)

For many years, I thought I had.

Now, I’m not so sure.

I saw the quote the other day, a phrase from a song by a popular vocalist.  As an aging man, realizing the years left in my earthly journey are fewer than those I’ve already traveled, it seemed an encouraging thought—for a moment or two.

I’d like to think the best of me is still hiding up my sleeve.*

I want that to be true.

Problem is, I’ve never had anything good up my sleeve at all.  I’m sure of it.  And yet, I have been practicing for many years.

All I’ve got is trickery and deception.

And, I’m terrified—absolutely certain the day will come when the facade will be pulled down to reveal the emptiness behind the curtain.

There’s nothing up my sleeves.  Nothing.

All the self-help books a man can check out from the library do no good, either.  It’s still lies and sleight-of-hand.

Just like the magic.

But, there is the one Book.  I’ve been doing some reading in that.

The Teacher, the one some thought was doing parlor tricks,  made clear to His followers there was only one way they could do good.

Live your life in Me and there will be much for them to see.  But apart from Me, you’ll have nothing—nothing at all.  (John 15:5)

There may yet be spectacular deeds done. It will be His doing. His alone. Click To Tweet

There may yet be spectacular deeds done.  The best could be just around the corner.

It will not be something to applaud me for.  There will be no adulation from the crowd for me.

Every good gift—every single one—and every excellent gift come from above, given by the Father of Lights.  (James 1:7)

I am content with that.

There’s still nothing up my sleeves.

There never was.

 

 

It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
(Galatians 2:20 ~ NLT)

 
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.
(from The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock ~ T S Eliot ~ British Essayist ~ 1888-1965)

 

 

*from No Such Thing ~ John Mayer ~ American singer/songwriter

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2017. 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.

No More Mr. Nice Guy

“You realize you’re a legend in this town, don’t you?”

I think I may have snorted. I didn’t mean to. The thirty-something rocker was paying me a compliment. And, he was dead serious.

“I mean it. Whenever anybody I know needs something for their guitar, they don’t say, I’m going to the music store; they say, I’m going to see Paul.”

I’m pretty sure I didn’t snort this time. Still, I stared at the young man with a dumb look on my face as I tried to think of something brilliant to say.

You know, it’s hard to say just the right thing when someone compliments you like that. I always look for ways to deflect the praise—usually mumbling something that sounds grateful while at the same time denying any special merit.

The man in front of me today wasn’t having it. He charged into the subject, laying out personal praise mixed with a story or two he had heard. He had evidence and was going to be heard.

I was kind, even though embarrassed, and let him talk for a few moments more. fish-1059268_640Then, I closed the conversation with a lame comment about big fishes in little ponds, and waved him out the front door cheerfully.

What a disaster!

Why is it so hard to tell the truth to people like that? I know the words to stop the flow of praise and compliments. Cold.

I should say them.

I said them yesterday. He forced me to. The guitar player—you know—the one who was wandering through the streets of New Orleans in one of my recent tales.

We had been bemoaning the habits of certain customers and also discussing the merits of certain practices in the business world. He is in management at a local retail business, so he understands the dynamic of customer relations, too.

Offhandedly, I suggested that he already knew the reason I treat my customers the way I do. I merely said it to prove a point and move on in the conversation to fun things. He wasn’t taking the bait.

Why do you treat them the way you do?” The mischievous grin on his face had just enough stubborn around the edges that I knew I would have to give an answer.

Trapped!

I said the words—the same words I should have said today—and he just nodded his head and smiled.

It’s not my gig. God is the one I represent. I follow His Son. How could it be any different?

And yet, today I had the opportunity to say those same words and I stuttered and nodded.

I want to be remembered as a nice guy.

The thing is, I’m not a nice guy.

On my own, I gripe and I complain; I nag and I fuss; I insist on my way and I say nasty things about people behind their backs.

So what I really want is for people to believe the lie that I’m a nice guy. Because, on my own, that’s all it is. A lie.

But, I’m not on my own. I haven’t been for a long time.

The truth of the matter is, God works in me both to want what He wants and to do it. (Philippians 2:13)

He’s the Nice Guy.

Not me.

The Apostle who was also known as The Rock, suggested to his readers that they always should be ready to give an answer for the faith living inside of them. (1 Peter 3:15)

You know, nice guys don’t steal.

And yet, I am a thief.

When I keep the glory that belongs to the One who lives within me, I steal from Him. When I lay claim to the brilliant planning it takes to run a successful business, I steal from the Giver of all good gifts.

Every single good thing comes from Him. (James 1:17)

Every single one.

He’s the Nice Guy. He’s the Gift-Giver—the Truth-Teller—the Master-Mind behind this outfit.

It’s not my gig.

My friend was right. I need to say the words. I intend to, again and again.

Tomorrow is another day. Another chance to do things right.

Grace is an astounding gift!

I might even introduce a few people to the real Nice Guy.

How hard can this be?

 

 

 

Every rascal is not a thief, but every thief is a rascal.
(Aristotle ~ Greek philosopher ~ 384 BC-322 BC)

 

 

…for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.
(Philippians 2:13-15 ~ ESV)

 

 

 

 

 

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

You? A Genius?

I didn’t laugh.  I’m sure I didn’t.  Still, I must have looked a little incredulously at him, because he repeated the word.  

Genius.

A genius.  Really?

The fellow in front of me, a rather normal looking fellow sixty-some years of age had just let me in on a secret he hadn’t told many people.  When he was younger, he informed me quietly, his school counselor had administered an IQ test.  

His voice got even quieter, almost a whisper, as he nodded sagely.  “It was right up there at genius level.”

We didn’t speak about that again in our conversation.  I was happy to leave the subject alone.  As we talked though, I observed some things that continue to give me pause tonight.

He told me he didn’t read books—in fact, he hates reading.  I also noted his lack of grammatical accuracy as we spoke together.  It is not something I normally take note of, such inaccuracies being the rule rather than the exception for many people I talk with.

Still, I expected more—of a genius. 

Well, you would—wouldn’t you?

The gift (or curse) of genius brings with it the weight of responsibility.  It is true of all gifts.  Not to say that they must be repaid, but that there is a respect due the gift itself—the respect of using it well and to its fullest capability.

I’m not a genius.  I think no one would attempt to foist that improbability off as truth.  I have muddled through life with my average intelligence.  I’m rather proud of it.

But, even as the words appear on the page, I have a sinking feeling they may come around to trip me (and perhaps you) up.  Let’s see if we can still avoid that, shall we?

The genius who refuses to play the part of one—that’s who we’re speaking of here, isn’t it?  Perhaps, we can just cast our judgments about him and be done with it.  

He’s been given so much, so very much, and yet he goes about his average life, working his average job, doing the same things any of us average folk do.  Doesn’t he know he owes the world more?

Oh, I can’t do this! 

You knew I couldn’t.

This isn’t about my genius friend who won’t play the part of a genius.  It’s about me.  It might even be about you.

I hear the words of the Teacher, as he spoke of those who had been given magnificent gifts and understanding of how to use those gifts.  To whom much has been given, much will be required.  And, those who have received an even greater portion will be asked for that much more. (Luke 12:48)

Somehow, I get the idea He wasn’t talking about financial wealth.  I’m not even sure He was speaking of physical abilities.

The extraordinary splendor of knowing and walking with God is a gift of astounding value.  The gift of God’s grace is unsurpassed in human history in it’s importance to mankind.

He gives us this gift to hold ourselves.  In our bodies made from dirt, which will return to dirt, He stores all of eternity.  All of it.

The responsibility that accompanies the giving of this extraordinary, astounding gift is just as extraordinary and astounding as is the gift itself.  

And yet, we disregard the gift—disregard it as if it were as ordinary as a Sunday morning.  And, in disregarding the gift, we disregard the Giver.

In spite of our disregard, and only because of our Creator’s unfailing mercy, we yet retain the gift.  His faithfulness toward us is immeasurable.  (Lamentations 3:22)

And I—I have the arrogance to point a finger at the man who was given nothing more than a minor upgrade in intellect.  The lack of scale here is ludicrous.  There can be no comparison.  None at all.kerosene-lamp-1202277_640

What an astonishing gift we’ve been given!

Perhaps, it’s time we lived up to it.

Time to toss off this bushel basket.  

It’s time for us to shine!

 

 

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those timid spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.
(from a speech by Theodore Roosevelt ~ 26th U.S. President ~ 1858-1919)

 

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
(2 Corinthians 4:7 ~ NIV)

 

 

 

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

Wonder

The old rust-colored 1953 Ford pickup truck slowed to a stop as the traffic light cycled from yellow to red.  The three year old on the bench seat beside me rattled on a mile a minute about his Sunday School class the day before.

“Our teacher says that God knows what we need before we even ask Him.  Why do we need to pray, anyhow?”

stop-77368_1920I mulled that one over for a few minutes and mumbled something about God wanting us to talk with Him, just like parents and children normally do.  It’s a question I still wonder about sometimes.

Without pursuing the subject any further, the little tyke moved on to other things.  Big Wheels and swing sets were more up his alley than the more weighty philosophical questions.  He did notice that we weren’t moving and wondered aloud about that.

“When will that light turn green, Daddy?”

I was sure it would be soon and told him so.  When it didn’t happen in a few seconds, he asked again.  I could see the light for the cross-traffic from my vantage point, so I told him maybe I could make it change in a minute.

“Why not now, Daddy?”

A second later, I noticed that the light for the cross-traffic had actually turned yellow.  Immediately, I called out an order in authoritative tones.

“One-two-three, change green!”

Obediently, the signal in front of us changed to the designated color and, revving the engine, I engaged the clutch and we eased through the intersection.  The boy gazed at me in admiration.  Amazement, really.

“Wow!  How did you do that, Daddy?”

It would be several years before the little guy noticed the correlation between the other lights and the one directly in front of us.  Until that time, he was in awe of his Daddy.  He would have more reasons than traffic lights to tarnish that awe before his years at home were done.

Remember what it was like to be a kid?  Remember the amazement?  The joy of life?  The gratitude for simple gifts?

I sit, and I remember, and my eyes fill with tears. 

How did I lose that?

When did my heart get so hard?

Last week again, I sat and watched the Father turn a red light to green for me, as a huge tax bill, which had hung over my head for months, was paid without fanfare.

It was huge.

I should be amazed.  I should be immensely grateful.

What I am, is demanding.

How did you do that?

Where did all that money come from? 

Why did I not know about it?

If I don’t understand it, I don’t trust it.  If I can’t explain it, I don’t want it.

I have become like the guy who goes to a magic show and demands to know how each illusion is accomplished.  Loud and obnoxious, from the cheap seats, he pushes the magician to reveal every secret, every trick.

It’s as if I believe I could duplicate the result if I knew each step of the routine.

A few weeks ago, I was blessed to visit with a friend who came to town for his university homecoming.  I knew he hadn’t planned to come, so I inquired about his change of mind.

He told me that God had done it.  My friend had dared God, in a sense, to reveal His will by sending him five hundred dollars in the mail—specifically in the mail—before time for his family to make the trip down from Iowa.

That week, three envelopes arrived for him via the Postal Service.  Three different checks, totaling five hundred and six dollars.

That’s what I want!  Specifics.  Money from this person, and from that company, and from a government refund.

Show me how it’s done!

But last week, I wrote my check for the taxes, and the money was simply there.  Where it came from, I don’t know.

I am frustrated.  The taxes are paid. I should be in awe, because the amount we needed was insurmountable, but I’m not even sure how I got to here from there.

How do I duplicate this next year?  What’s the procedure to insure its repetition?  What steps do I take to guarantee an encore performance?

I don’t know any of those things.  And, I need to know them.

But then, there’s this:  

By faith, Abraham was called to go to the land he would receive as his inheritance.  And, obediently he went—get this!—not knowing where he was going. (Hebrews 11:8-10)

The truth sinks in and again, I see the little boy on the truck seat next to me.  In awe of a trickster.  

In awe.  And, I can’t even trust the God of the Universe with the secrets of a tiny part of what He has created.

When am I going to get the hang of this?  How long before I unlearn my cynicism and distrust, and live in expectation of greater than I can hope or imagine?

We walk by faith.  If we have to see it, it’s not faith.

I want to see the world through childlike eyes again, in faith trusting a God who tells me He wants nothing but the best for me.

I wonder if anybody else reading this has succumbed to the dark and cynical viewpoint the world has pawned off on us?  My guess is, if I’ve fallen for it, so have others.  Maybe we could help each other to feel the wonder again.  We might even encourage each other to trust the visible creation to an unseen God.

Imagine!  

What if we really could walk by faith and not by sight? (2 Corinthians 5:7)

Every good gift comes down from Him.  Every one—whether I can explain it or not. 

And He itraffic-lights-77320_1920s the One, after all, who really does know (and control) when the light
 is going to change to green again.

One-two-three, change green!

 

Even so . . .

 

 

People like you and me never grow old. We never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.
(Albert Einstein ~ German-American physicist ~ 1879-1955)

 

The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
(Galatians 2:20b ~ NIV)

 

 

 

 

 

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

Dragon Gold

Who steals my purse steals trash.

The high school kid smiled wryly at us for just a second as we moved closer to his checkout stand.  Then he turned his attention back to the young lady beside the register.  He had just scanned four tubes of a popular health & beauty product for her.

“That will be twenty-one dollars and seventy-six cents, Ma’am.”

Silently, the lady reached into her wallet and took out a coupon.  Beep!  He scanned the bar code into the machine.  The total was instantly three dollars lower.

He turned to her to tell her the new amount, but all she did was pull another coupon from her wallet.  Each time he completed the scan on one, she pulled out another, until there were five coupons on the counter. He dutifully scanned each one in.  With the fifth piece of paper though, the machine let out a raucous screech, instead of the cutesy beeping sound we were becoming accustomed to.

“I’m sorry, Ma’am.  You can’t use that coupon since you already used the others.”

She was incredulous.  Handing the printed coupon back to him, she insisted he try it again.  He obliged, but the machine screeched one more time.  The young man tried patiently to explain that she couldn’t use a coupon on an item for which she had already presented a coupon.

Now, she wasn’t just incredulous; she was miffed.  She snatched the offending coupon up off the counter and stuffed it into her wallet.  Quickly paying the nine dollar total (for twenty-one dollars worth of product), she strode off in a huff, her husband trailing behind.

When we completed our own transaction with the poor young man, the Lovely Lady and I headed for the exit, only to run across the lady and her husband standing near the door still.  She was pointing to the receipt in her hand and gesturing angrily back toward the cash register.  It seemed the young clerk wasn’t quite finished with the interchange.  We didn’t hang around to see the conclusion.

People are passionate about money, aren’t they?

Did you read the quote which opened this article?  It’s from a play by William Shakespeare, entitled Othello.  Mr. Shakespeare is actually trying to bolster up an argument about the value of a good name.  But, in doing that, he gives a fairly accurate description of the value of money.

Trash.  He calls it trash.

Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing; 
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands. . . 

The Bard of Avon wasn’t the first to come to this conclusion.  He put it differently than King Solomon, many centuries before him, did.  A little differently.  

Whoever loves money never has enough;
    whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
    This too is meaningless.
(Ecclesiastes 5:10 ~ NIV)

Trash.  Meaningless.

Jesus walked among the wealthy and the poor. He enjoyed the plenty of food and fellowship as well as knowing the poverty of homelessness. He also used the word slave in relationship to money.   But unlike Mr. Shakespeare many centuries later, Jesus didn’t refer to money as the slave.

No.  He said that we are slaves to it.  Or to God. (Matthew 6:24 ~ NIV)

We choose.  But, servants we will be.  

If you’re like me, you will immediately state the obvious:  

I want to be the servant of God.  I will never serve money.

But again, if you’re like me, the resolve lasts as long as it takes to encounter someone who tries to take advantage of you.

Did you pay attention to the lady in the story above?  Some of us read her plight with a sympathetic spirit.  That greedy corporation!  What would a few dollars mean to them? Why would they cheat her like that? 

If we stop and contemplate for a moment, however, the truth begins to dawn.  The company was selling the product for a fair market price.  The company issued the coupons which reduced that price by more than half.

The discount was a gift to her!   A gift from the very company of whom she demanded more.

How like her we are.  Every single thing we have—every possession, every dollar, every benefit—each one is a gift from a loving and benevolent Heavenly Father.  Every good gift comes down from Him. (James 1:17 ~ NIV)

Every good gift.

Somehow though, the good gifts He gives become, in our minds, our right—our birthright if you will—and we desire more. In Solomon’s words above, we are never satisfied.

But, like dragon’s gold, we lie on our hoarded wealth and become greedy, dragon-238931_1280selfish dragons ourselves.  I can’t help but see that selfish, hateful boy—from C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader—Eustace Scrubb, in my mind as I consider our plight.  

The self-centered boy wandered away from his traveling companions and found the treasure trove of a dragon which had just died.  Crawling up on the stack of gold and jewels, he fell asleep. 

A funny thing happens to the boy while he sleeps on his astounding find, perhaps not unlike the transformation we go through as we hold our earthly treasure close.

Here are Mr. Lewis’s words:  Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he has become a dragon himself.

I wonder if I’ve already said too much.  Perhaps I’ve stood on this soap box longer than I should tonight.  

But, after all, I know what is in my heart.  It’s not a pretty sight.  I also know the conversations I’ve read and heard recently—conversations which convince me that what is in my heart is not exclusive to only me.

It may be time for the Lion to do His work in removing the dragon scales from around my heart.  They’ve been growing for awhile.  It will likely take some doing.

It might be a little painful, as well.

 

 

 

 

But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?
(I John 3:17 ~ NASB)

 

If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.
(from The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien ~ English author/educator ~ 1892-1973)

 

 

 

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

Jangling Bells

Forty years.  Gone in a moment’s time.

janglingbells

The door of the music store opened with a jangle of bells, the ones hanging from the knob, and I looked up from printing orders to see who it was.  The face looking back at me smiled broadly and instantly the years disappeared.

No, it hasn’t been forty years since I saw the face, but it was forty years ago that I began a new job with the man as my supervisor.  I would learn more in that single fleeting year than in many long ones that came after it.

His lovely wife was at his side on this day and we stood and talked as old friends will.  The present time flew by, but our conversation carried us back several decades as we told old stories and laughed about events nearly forgotten in the tumultuous progression of years since. 

It was sheer pleasure.

As we spoke, he remembered how long we have actually known each other and our conversation went back, far beyond the forty years, to the first time he laid eyes on me. 

The young family had walked into the old brick church—a dark-haired man and his red-headed wife, both about thirty years old.  Trying unsuccessfully to be unobtrusive, four urchins—well, three noisy boys and their silent, shy sister—trailed their parents.  Oh.  There was one more, a baby—a big baby—held in the arms of the red-headed lady.

Yep.  I was the baby.  This man, the one who would seventeen years later teach me a number of life skills, has known me since I was that young.

And still, he likes me enough to stop by on his nearly 1,500 mile trip and spend an hour or two just reminiscing and catching up.  Oh, the stories he could tell if he wanted to.  Perhaps he has forgotten them.  Let’s hope so.

As we spoke, I realized how our lives have been tied together.  As a preschooler, I remember his father used to wave broadly at us each day as he passed our trailer house in his Tom’s Peanuts truck on the way to restock vending machines at the country club.  Once in awhile, he would toss out a package or two of peanuts to us, standing barefoot at the edge of the road, and we’d marvel at how the wealthy man could be so generous.  Later, father and mother both would be my Sunday-school teachers, and his aunt would play the piano while his uncle waved his arms, leading us in singing the old hymns.  

In a thousand ways, it seems we grew up together, even though he is twelve years older than I.  We have certainly grown old together, although the miles have gotten in the way a bit.

Old friends are the best.

But, I wonder . . .

My old friends and I had begun to say our goodbyes, when the door of the music store opened again, the bells jangling as they did before.  Two men wandered in, faces smiling broadly. 

They are friends I have met in my adult life.  It has only been in recent years that I would even call them friends, knowing them before that merely as acquaintances.  But, friends they are.

I introduced them, my old friends and new.  For a moment, I felt the strange feeling of witnessing two worlds colliding.  A meeting of folks with one thing in common: me.  Then my old friend began telling my new friends a story and we were all just friends, neither new nor old.

I went that night and sank down into a comfortable chair at the local coffee-shop.  With coffee cup in hand I would listen to one of my new friends play his guitar and sing a few songs. 

It was sheer pleasure.

I sat listening, but also pondering the mystery of friendship.  Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the music, but I knew my friend would take care of his part.  He’s an old pro.  I was too overwhelmed just then with the realization of what it means for a man to have friends, both old and new.

Did I say friendship was a mystery?  So it is, but more than that, it is a gift.  And, not just any gift, like a tie on Father’s Day, or even a new toy on Christmas. 

Friendship is one of the greatest gifts entrusted to us by a loving Father who gives only good gifts.  I wonder that we don’t treasure it more.  I lament that we don’t care for it better, allowing it to lie untended for years while the weeds of neglect take it over.

The Creator thought it important enough that He cultivated an intimate friendship with man in the garden, walking with him in the cool of the day.  His Son selected twelve who would spend their years with him, walking and eating, and learning from Him.  Others, He would grow close to as well—Mary, Martha, along with their brother Lazarus.

The red-headed lady who carried me into that church fifty-seven years ago taught me the principle, her words coming in the form of a platitude (that doesn’t make it any less relevant).

If you want to have friends, you have to be a friend.

I’m not all that good a friend.  I am thankful for folks who have overlooked that and have been a friend to me anyway.  I’m trying to do better.

Old friends.  New friends. 

They’re basically the same, with new friends eventually becoming old friends.  I’m not sure when the transition is made, but I sat with people the other evening who I distinctly remember being new friends not all that long ago (if you can call nearly forty years not all that long).  Definitely old friends now.

You know, I don’t really have anything I want to teach tonight. 

I just needed to remind myself that sometimes a gift is given when we least expect it.  I need to remember to be grateful to the Giver and to show my gratitude in the way I care for His gifts.

New becomes old, gaining value as it ages.  More like a fine musical instrument, I think, than the drink with which it is usually compared.  The wine is consumed and gone so soon, but a fine guitar or violin makes sweeter music the longer and more often it is played.

Gifts. 

Care for them well, but utilize them often. 

Sweet music will come, probably just like the dulcet tones I heard that night in my comfortable chair at the coffee shop.

Or, perhaps more like the jangling of the bells as the door opens to welcome another one in.

Sweet music.

 

 

When all the world is old, lad,
And all the trees are brown;
And all the sport is stale, lad,
And all the wheels run down:
Creep home, and take your place there,
The spent and maim’d among:
God grant you find one face there
You loved when all was young.
(from The Old, Old Song ~ Charles Kingsley ~ English cleric/poet ~ 1819-1875)

 

 

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!
(Ecclesiastes 4:9,10 ~ ESV)

 

 

 

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

The Present

We sat down to dinner with the table almost creaking under the weight of the food.  As is our habit, we prayed before we began to eat, realizing that all the blessings we enjoy are really gifts from a loving Creator.  We held hands around the table, a chain of family and friends, from very young children all the way up to Great Grandma, showing our love for each other and thankfulness for the gifts.

Grandpa prayed, as usual. 

By long experience, I have learned the attention span of the children is short.  Dinnertime is not the time to engage in long-winded prayers, remembering all the sick and troubled, all those who have traveled afar, and those in the world less fortunate than we. 

No, we are simply thankful for the food and a few other blessings, asking that we will be faithful stewards of the gifts.  Short prayers are the best at the dinner table.  My grandchildren would agree. 

Some time ago, they learned that the words, in Jesus’ name, usually preceded Amen, which was the signal to eat.  Accordingly, the older girl would begin saying Amen as soon as those other words were heard. 

I’m not sure if I have gotten longer-winded with time, or if the girl has just learned the process can be hurried a bit, but recently, she has taken to saying the word earlier in my prayer, long before I’m ready to invoke our Savior’s name. 

Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, is what I heard at the table today as I Franz_von_Defregger_-_Grace_Before_Mealstarted to wind up my prayer. 

I hurried a bit faster to the real Amen! which echoed from several different points of the table.  We all laughed and Grandma hugged the beautiful girl as the abbreviated prayer was ended.

 These times are precious and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

It did make me think a bit, though.  I wonder if deep down inside, we’re all still little children at heart.  We are in such a hurry to get to the next part that we forget to enjoy where we are right now, today. 

For some reason, we keep looking to the future and its promise, forgetting that the reality of the present is actually a gift given for us to savor and to carry us into that future. 

I know I am often guilty.  Just get me through this day—this job—this crisis, and I’ll be okay. 

Then I get to the future and it’s not much different—simply more wishing for whatever comes next.

I’m not a lover of country music, but I can’t get the words of this song from the seventies out of my head:  I…I’m driving my life away, looking for a better way, for me.  I’m driving my life away, looking for a sunny day…  

It’s not so much that we’re driving it away as we are working and eating and sleeping it away, but little by little it is speeding past, while we look for that time when we’re satisfied with where we are. 

I’m pretty sure that time never arrives unless we learn to be satisfied with today, here and now.

As children, we learn to wait (and long) for future events—class bells to ring—big yellow buses to come—summer vacation to parole us.  Back then, it seemed that those things took forever to arrive.  From today’s perspective, they came and went with lightning speed. 

But, still we wait for future events and thus waste today and its joy.

I hear a little voice out there saying, Amen, Amen, Amen, Amen, and realize that it’s time to stop blabbering on now. 

I will oblige. 

But I will say this before I stop:  This is the day which the Lord has made.  I will rejoice and be glad in it! 

Take time to live, really live, on this spectacular day. 

Today.

It is indeed a lavish gift not to be ignored, nor scorned.

Amen!

 

 

Time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping into the future.
(from Fly Like An Eagle ~ Steve Miller Band ~ 1976)

Godliness with contentment is great gain.
(I Timothy 6:6 ~ NIV)

 

 

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

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

“How many times a day do you sweep your kitchen floor?”

The question was asked, ostensibly as a query in an informal poll, by my funny friend on her Facebook page the other day.  And, by funny, I mean funny ha-ha, not funny weird.  Well, maybe funny weird a little, but mostly funny ha-ha.

The question triggered a thought (again) that has been bothering me for many years.   Maybe bothering isn’t the right word.  I think perhaps the correct term would be frustrating.  Because it certainly is.  Frustrating, I mean.

Why is it that some jobs are never done?  Even when you’ve done them?

Those of my readers who do housework will understand perfectly.  Laundry, dishes, housecleaning, meal preparation–the list is endless.  And repetitious beyond belief.

My own list, though somewhat less imposing, has the same challenge.  Tasks done today must be done again tomorrow.  Or next week.  Or next year.  It matters not.  They must be done again.

And again.

The lawn needs to be mowed?  Yep–I’ll have to do it again next week.  Car needs to be washed?  It’ll rain tomorrow and I’ll have to do it again.  Time to paint the eaves?  What, again?  I just did that ten years ago!

The problem with life is that it’s so daily.

I want to be able to assign the quote to a certain person, but I think it has been spoken aloud so often by now that Anonymous will have to do.  Still, the truth is, we all face the repetition of daily life–today, tomorrow, the day after, and the day after that.

I hate the dailies.  Really.  What’s the point?  They’ll just have to be done again.

LatherRinseRepeat.

We call it drudgery.  Difficult work to do.  Work that must be done repeatedly.  Day after day.

I was amused as I searched for the definition of drudgery.  I noticed a thesaurus listing which equated the word with an idiom Christians use frequently–at least in our discussions of fallen man:

By the sweat of one’s brow.

And the Creator said to His creation, “In drudgery shall you earn the food you will eat, until you return to the dust from which you came.”

Quite the depressing subject, no?  Do you get the idea that I’m not just talking about all the physical, menial tasks I’ve mentioned above? 

I’m not.

thestruggleI want to talk for a minute (maybe a little more than that) about what I’m doing right now. 

At this moment, I’m sitting in a dimly lit room with soft music playing, coffee cup at hand.  No, I’m not all that comfy.  The hard wood chair has a pad where it makes contact with my sitting-down parts.  No place else.  There is no plush rug to sink my feet into.  In fact, my feet have to stay corralled under the wooden desk, sharing the already narrow space with a computer tower.

I do this most nights.  I’m not playing games, not browsing the Interwebs, nor even answering correspondence from friends.

I come and sit here because I have to.  For hours, almost without moving, at times.

I have to.

Writing isn’t something I fell in love with; it isn’t a path to fame and fortune.  It’s not even an activity I chose to do.  Well, in a way, it is. 

I choose to be obedient to the assignment.

I know there are many writers who will disagree with me.  I know of several who believe that every word they write is given to them from God.  That’s not the gift I’ve been given.

The gift I have been given is a drive to write, a need to communicate God’s love through the printed words.  The gift came from God.  I have to write.

You want to know my problem with that? 

The words don’t just fall from heaven onto my desk. 

The nights I have plopped down in my hard wooden desk chair and had an entire essay flow like honey from my fingers, I can count on those sticky fingers.

It’s a struggle.  A fight.  On this emotional battlefield, I cry and I scream, all the while wondering if I’ll ever write another lucid sentence.  From many of those battles, I’ve crept silently home, defeated.  I lie in my bed, sleeplessly gazing at the ceiling and promising myself that in the morning I’ll break the news to the Lovely Lady that I’m finished. Washed up.

To my shame, from some of those battles, I have simply turned to my keyboard and slapped out enough letters and symbols to weave together the words which make up another empty and useless essay.  My victims will read it and wonder what the crazy man was getting at this time.  It’s still defeat.

The result is the same as before: no sleep, no rest in my spirit, an overwhelming sense of disappointment at my failure to achieve the purpose.

Funny.  My restless night notwithstanding, the next nights nearly always find me back here.  The hard chair is almost welcoming by now, the soft light calming, the beautiful music helping to keep the resolve in my soul firm and unyielding.  Regardless of the defeats that have come on this battlefield, the gift demands my attendance.

Why do writers write? 

You might as well ask why my friend, Ms. Barb, bakes rolls for her friends.  Or, question why, in my town, Pastor Wayne builds ramps in front of the houses of the lame and the aged.  Inquire about what drove my friends in Houston to adopt a child with lifelong needs, issues which will demand their attention from now until they no longer have the physical or mental strength to fulfill them.

God gives good gifts.  The Teacher said it.  If your child asks for food will you give him/her a rock?  How much more–there can be no question–how much more then, will your Heavenly Father give good gifts to His children?

Good gifts.

There are days when it feels more like a noose around the neck. 

Ask my friends in Houston.  Ask Ms. Barb–okay, don’t ask her.  She’ll never admit it.  Still, I wonder if sometimes, just sometimes, it doesn’t take all she has inside to muster up the energy.

Night after night, I struggle with my stewardship of this gift.  It’s not a word we use much, is it?  Steward.  The word implies servitude–the administration of things which will never completely belong to us. 

It is what we are if we follow Him.  Servants.  Stewards.

By choice.The_Gift

We give back the gift to the Giver.  Only, we have taken the time and made the effort to make the gift, which was appropriate and necessary for us, priceless and beautiful for the King of all Creation.

Drudgery?  Sweat of our brow?  Yes, in a way.  We labor at it, without doubt.

I struggle with tenses and punctuation, fight with malapropisms, wrestling the sentences into order, night after night.  And still, the next morning, I await the emails from the Lovely Lady bearing the bad news.  A comma placed incorrectly, fuzzy antecedents, abused hyphens–all are grist for her mill, and I get a steady diet of them.

It’s hard work

No–these words don’t proceed straight from the mouth and heart of God.  They are filtered through this bumbling and inefficient scribe.  There will always be room for improvement. 

In anticipation of this essay, I shared a couple of thoughts with my online friends earlier this week.  It’s only drudgery if there is no purpose, I suggested to them. 

I have a purpose

So does Ms. Barb.  And Pastor Wayne.  And my friends in Houston.  So does every single one of us who has also been given one or more of those good gifts.  I suspect that includes most of those brave souls who have read thus far in this lengthy piece.

So.  What happens with the gift now? 

Often for a lifetime, and then again, sometimes only for a season, He gives good gifts.  And, when He sees our faithfulness in using that gift, He usually gives bigger gifts.

Bigger jobs, you ask?

Yeah, they’re the same thing.

Life is so daily

He made the days, too.  Gifts as well.  Seven in a week.  Three hundred sixty-five of them in a year’s time.

So we’d have more chances to get better at being faithful stewards.

I’m just wondering how I’m going to find time to write all the thank-you notes for the gifts–what with washing the car, sweeping the floor, painting the trim, and…

 

 

 

 

 

Your talent is God’s gift to you.  What you do with it is your gift back to God.
(Leo Buscaglia ~ American author/motivational speaker ~ 1924-1998)

 

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
(1 Corinthians 15:58 ~ NIV)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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