Saying When

Thirty miles.  I can do this.

Cycling is not second nature to me.  I still have to force myself into the clothes and out the door on each solo ride I make.  After several years of self-discipline and more than a few dollars spent for equipment, I still argue like a three-year-old being made to eat his squash.  Every time.

That said, I am learning a lot about myself—a lot more than I learn while sitting on the couch.  The lessons help me to understand much about who I am and who I want to become.

Some would say I’ve left it a little late.  I say, it is what it is.

Thirty miles was my goal as I left the house one afternoon last week.  Almost two hours on the tiny, hard bicycle seat.  

My friends do twice that every Saturday.  And they’re older than I.  I was going to do this!

That afternoon, the first twelve miles went by fairly quickly with a couple of minor, mostly inconvenient, events which rattled me a little. I was tired and thirsty already.  Add to that the fact I hate riding along the state highway with traffic zipping past at sixty and seventy miles per hour, and you’ll understand why I was grateful for a quiet parking lot in which to grab a drink and put my foot down on the pavement for a moment.  

I had flown down the last downhill section of the highway right before my rest stop. Freeing one of my two water bottles from its cage, I gulped enough of the ice-cold, clear liquid to irrigate the  gritty desert in my throat.  

I didn’t want to cool down too much, but I did want to quiet my spirit and forget the honking, motor-revving pickup on that narrow country lane earlier.  The old guy pulling a stock trailer who sped up to get in front of me before making a right turn right across my way hadn’t helped things any, either.

And yet, it didn’t take long before I was ready to ride again.

Now, the busy highway was between me and my chosen route.  I had to cross five lanes.  That’s all I had to do to get back onto the quiet back road, along which I could speed—or lollygag—whichever.

Cross the highway.  Easy, right?  Wait for a break in traffic and, pushing both pedals, roll right across.  Twelve miles down, eighteen to go.

Easy, peasy.

Checking traffic to my left and seeing none, I eased across the lane.  To my right, a pickup truck crested the hill quite a distance away.  Well, perhaps he was closer.

A lot closer!

It didn’t help that I was in the highest gear on the bicycle.  Well I would be, after flying down that hill, wouldn’t I?  I should have checked.

I should also have estimated the oncoming traffic’s speed better.  

Pedal!  Harder!

My left foot, not yet locked into the pedal, slipped off.  The right foot was locked in.  It would have to do.

I pedaled furiously—up, down, up. down—all with one foot.  In the highest gear.

Safety!  I made it!  Moving quickly now, I coasted along the rural lane, lifting my left foot back onto the pedal to lock it into place.  Ow!

Wow!  That hurt!  My lower back, evidently not up to the stress of one-footed pedaling, let me know I had strained a major muscle.  What would I do?

The Lovely Lady was a phone call away—the pickup truck ready to haul my bicycle home.  Or, I could simply head for home.  It had been twelve miles out, but six or seven by the most direct route would soon have me home.

Thirty miles.  I had promised myself I would ride thirty today.

I kept riding.

cycling-655565_640Thirty-three miles showed on my fitness program when I pulled back up to the storage barn in which I house my faithful steed.

I surpassed my goal.  I climbed hills.  I rolled through beautiful farmland.  I passed the safari grounds with exotic breeds of animals everywhere.  Camels, ostriches, and buffalo, along with a gazelle or two, gazed out at me as I stared in at them.  It was a wonderful ride through the springtime countryside.  

I want to be proud.

What I am, is embarrassed.

My friends who ride will read the description above and mutter the words under their breath.  I know they will.  

Rookie!  Amateur!

They’re not wrong.  I should have checked my gears.  I should have been able to easily lock my left shoe into the pedal mount. Still. That’s not why I’m embarrassed.  Not all of it anyway.

Goals are important, aren’t they?  Sometimes, one must just work through the pain and finish what they started.

It’s true. Goals matter.  But, there’s more to the story, isn’t there?

May I tell you the sentence I have uttered more times this week than I can count?  (Well, besides Oh, my back hurts!)

“I’m sorry it’s not finished yet.  I hurt my back and haven’t been able to work at my bench most of the week.”

I met my goal on Saturday.  And because of that, I haven’t been able to meet one since.

I would have been disappointed to miss the mark that day.  

Any number of people have been disappointed that I’ve missed the mark every day in this week.

My stubbornness has affected many more people than a little discretion would have.  

Only one person would have been unhappy about that missed goal—Me.

I wonder.  Folks all around me are telling me not to worry about tomorrow.  

Live in the moment.  You only live once.  Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.

The same people are telling me not to live in the past, as well.  But, it’s back in the past that I have experienced this before.  My memories of the past should have aided me in preparing for the future.

We don’t live in the past, but we do learn from it.

We don’t worry about the future, but we do plan for it.

We live today, but not as if it were the only day.

There are times when we will need help, too. There is no shame in missing the goal when wisdom dictates a different course.  There is no shame in saying, I need help.

I need help.

Do you know someone who is so focused on an individual goal they’ve set that everything and everybody else is invisible to them?  Perhaps, it might even be you.

The job at hand takes so much attention that we forget it’s only a part of what we’ve been called to do.

We need to know when to say when.

Somehow, I can’t help but think about the prophet Elisha as he sat under the tree, his goals unmet, wanting to die.  He had faced the prophets of the foreign god and conquered spectacularly.  Achieving that goal, he forgot their defeat was only one step in another, greater purpose  Then, when faced with reality, he shut down completely. (1 Kings 19:1-8)

God sent an angel to take care of him.  The messenger from God fed him, suggesting that the journey was too hard without food and drink. Eating, he was refreshed and continued on his journey.

I’m always amazed at the messengers God sends my way.  Some are lovely, some incredibly unkind.  Some are gentle, while a number are rough and crude.  

Still, accepting their aid, and as I am willing to refocus, I remember that each goal is not independent of the one before or after, but merely different.

And sometimes, when I am hurt and alone, He covers me with His own wings and protects from danger.

Unless, I keep pedaling.

I’m shooting for the mark, but I don’t want to miss a thing He has for me along the way.

There is still joy to be found in the journey.

Maybe, it’s time to say when.

 

 

I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods;
    with singing lips my mouth will praise you.
On my bed I remember you;

    I think of you through the watches of the night.
Because you are my help,

    I sing in the shadow of your wings.
(Psalms 63:5-7 ~ NIV)

Be strong enough to stand alone, smart enough to know when you need help, and brave enough to ask for it.
(Ziad Abdelnour ~ American investment banker)

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

The Story of My Life

There’s not enough!  The story of my life.

blanket-1245171_640The red-headed lady who raised me was disgusted.  A new baby was due soon to a young couple in our church and she was on a deadline to finish the little crocheted blanket.

The baby shower had come and gone without a gift to offer, but she remained confident the project would be completed before the little tyke’s arrival.

Stymied!

Just inches short of the intended size, she had run out of the variegated yarn she loved to use on such projects.  There was no way she had time to order more.  Alas, the child might actually come into this world without the blanket.  From her perspective, it would be a disaster.

“The story of my life!”  She repeated the plaintive phrase.

She threw up her hands in disgust and, sticking the crochet needle through the loosely-knit material, tossed the blanket into the wicker basket beside her chair.

She was done, it seemed.

Giving up.

Ah!  But we knew better.  It was only a matter of time.

She sat, moping, in the easy chair.

Any time now

There it was.

The index finger on her right hand went to her mouth.  She tapped her lips, muttering.

“I wonder. . .”

The change was abrupt when it came.  Her left hand plunged into the basket and pulled the good-for-nothing blanket back onto her lap.  She began to yank on the single tendril of yarn hanging out of the edge at the place she had ceased her labor only moments before.

Like a mad-woman, she worked—ripping out the stitches she had put in laboriously in the hours preceding.  We wondered if she had gone mad.  The thought didn’t last long.

She soon stopped and examined the blanket to see where she was.  Then, more slowly than at first, she continued to pull at the yarn.  There was a sizable pile at her feet when she finally stopped.

Talking to herself, she said,  “That should do it.  I hope this works.”

Grabbing a full skein of contrasting colored yarn from the shelf beside her, she began to work once more.  The stitch pattern was different than the main body of the blanket, but she was no longer making the blanket.  This was a border.  Before it was done, it would be two inches wide around all four sides of the little blanket.

A two-inch border of ingenuity and flexibility.

The finished blanket was beautiful—a perfect wrapping for the tiny baby who would arrive that week.  And, every time she saw the baby in its carrier, swaddled in the little blanket, the red-headed lady would stop and admire him.

I wonder if anyone else noticed that she always took hold of the border of the little guy’s blanket and rubbed it between her fingers.  Perhaps they thought the smile on her face was because of the baby.

I wonder.
                             

I will always be sad to remember her initial reaction.

She seemed to truly believe that unhappy events were her personal due in life.  Like her mother before her, Mom wasn’t much of an optimist.

Frequently, she used phrases like the story of my life and par for the course, as if she thought it was simply what she had coming to her.

And, that makes me sad.

What doesn’t make me sad is the realization that she never let that expectation stop her from both starting, and seeing projects through to completion, even when interrupted by the frequent checks that momentarily discouraged her.

Like a dog worrying a particularly tough bone, her surrender was nearly always short-lived.  Even if it took hours of concentration and exploration of alternatives, she would eventually crack the problem open to savor the sweet taste of success.
                             

Funny.  We all experience the momentary setbacks.  The disappointment of plans gone awry is common to every one of us.

Every one of us.  Our Savior promised us trouble in this world. (John 16:33)

It’s not personal.

Maybe, it’s time to get past the par for the course thinking and get on with finishing the blanket.

Or whatever task God has put in front of us.

We’ll take pride in the result.  Even if it’s not what we envisioned to begin with.

We tackle our problems head-on and finish the job.

And, that is the story of our lives.

 

 

 

A bend in the road is not the end of the road.  Unless you fail to make the turn.
(Helen Keller ~ Deaf & blind American author/lecturer ~ 1880-1968)

 

In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world.
(John 16:33 ~ NIV)

 

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
(Psalm 23:6a ~ KJV)

 

 

 

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

Glory Follows

Gloria virtutem tamquam umbra sequitur.

My son has a huge cardboard box full of trophies that still sits in a closet in my house.  Now in his thirties, he values them not at all.  It’s funny, but even back when he was a kid, they didn’t mean all that much to him.

Except a few.  The ones that actually were given for accomplishing something had a place of honor on his dresser.  The participation trophies?  Relegated to the closet.

I will freely admit it.  I may have been part of the reason for his disdain of the you-matter-because-you-showed-up awards.  I never vocally disrespected them, but I did praise the hard work which went into earning the championship team awards, and the Best in Class plaques.

Praise should be given when praise is earned.  Accomplishment earns a reward.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I am an encourager.  Atta-boys and way-to-give-it-your-best-shot messages are important, even essential, in the development of a child. If all they live with is high expectations, without support, they become bitter and discouraged.  But, a pat on the back is not a trophy.

Encouragement is not glory.  

The Apostle, my namesake, was clear in how he put it.  In a race, everybody runs the best they can, but only one person gets the glory—the trophy.  (1 Corinthians 9:24)

In encouragement, no one could fault the Apostle.  Always, he built up his readers, coaxing them to reach new heights, but in this instance, he was blunt. 

Run so you can win.  

Period.

All of life, every part of it, takes place on the race course.  It’s not a dash—not a challenging five kilometer run—not even a half-marathon.  As exhausted as it makes me to contemplate it, the race is more like an Ironman Triathlon, only longer.

Swim nearly two and a half miles.  Make equipment/clothing adjustments and hop onto your bicycle.  Ride one hundred and twelve miles.  Yes.  One hundred and twelve.  Make whatever wardrobe changes are necessary.  Run just over twenty-six miles.  

The whole course.  If you want to win, you must run the entire series of races.  They’re all part of the whole.  Then and only then will a winner be handed the prize.

human-1045469_1280Did you notice the quotation at the top of this little essay?  Cicero, a Roman philosopher, who lived in the first century B.C. said the words.

What’s that?  Oh.  You don’t read Latin.  Neither do I, if it comes down to it.  Let me try again.

Glory follows virtue as if it were its shadow.

As if it were its shadow.

Imagine.  You’re in the race, swimming the first leg of the course.  Two and a half miles, you have battled.  Victory is yours!  The crowd waiting at the water’s edge goes crazy with adulation as you wade out of the shallows, well ahead of the closest competitor.

Glory!  They love you!  What an accomplishment!

You plow into the crowd, high-fiving and fist-bumping as you go.  Basking in the glory—glory you earned for yourself—you relax and exult in your accomplishment.

What’s that?  What do you mean I’m not finished yet?  I won, didn’t I?

Of course, you understand that it cannot be.  One leg is not the entire race. While you were beguiled by the praise and glory of a partial victory, others have gone on ahead to complete the course.

Enamored by the shadow—glory—you turned away from the task at hand.  And, just like that, the glory has disappeared.

Just for a moment, will you look with me at the picture Cicero has drawn with his words?  If it helps you may even want to glance at the photo that accompanies these thoughts.

Shadows follow behind.  As we walk toward the source of light, the shadow follows.  It never precedes us.  Never.

Glory only follows if we continue in virtue.

It almost seems cruel, doesn’t it?  We achieve, but we have no time to enjoy the reward.

Can I tell you a secret?  

Glory was never our goal.  Never.

Virtue.

That’s our goal, always before us.  Righteousness.    

As we follow closely after God though, His glory will be evident—to those looking on.  He himself upholds us. For His Glory.

His.  Glory.

It stays only as long as our faces are to the Light, pursuing the prize.  Turn to revel in the moment and it is lost.

Face to the sun, we keep running—or swimming—or riding.

Face to the Sun.

Glory follows.

 

 

My soul follows close behind You;
Your right hand upholds me.
(Psalm 63:8 ~ NKJV)

 

Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life!
Whoever finishes first, we’ll call him the Ironman.
(Commander John Collins, USN ~ founder of 1st Ironman Triathlon ~ 1978)

 

 

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2016. 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. 

Not Far Now

The message from my fitness program caught my eye as I clicked it off after my run tonight.

“Paul ran 3.99 miles.”

I set out from home tonight with a goal of running four miles.  I failed to meet that goal by one one-hundredth of a mile!  Only fifty-three feet.

I failed.

It’s not a moral failing.  The four-mile goal was an arbitrary distance, set by an ambitious energetic man, unburdened by the weight of fatigue.  It hadn’t come down as an edict from Heaven, with grim repercussions to follow, should the course not be completed.

My decision to stop short was not a calculated one.  The last two blocks of my run were spent alternating between gasping for breath, holding my side, and muttering a plea for the voice on my fitness program to announce the four miles already.  The need for air and relief from discomfort won out over the desire to meet my arbitrary goal.

Still, I failed.  

Tonight, from my comfortable office chair, rested and hydrated, I look at those numbers in the statistics.  They mock me.  

3.99 miles.  Not 4 miles.  Not 4.1.  Three point nine-nine.

At the speed I was running tonight, it would only have taken six more seconds to reach the goal.  Six seconds!

I’ll get over my disappointment with myself.  I hope I can do better.  That said, this is not the first time I’ve quit before reaching a goal.  One would think a fellow would have learned his lesson.

My mind (and heart) has moved on to other things, even as I consider your disappointment in me, just now learning I’m a quitter.  You’ll simply have to get used to the feeling.  I have.

Tonight though, I’m wondering about how many people have spent a lifetime working toward a goal, only to give up within a stone’s throw of their objective.  Tired and disheartened, uncertain of how much further their destination will be, their attention is stolen away by the attractions along the road.

Comfort could be theirs.  They’ve never cared before, the reality of their mission imprinted indelibly in their hearts.  But now?  Now they’re tired—tired and lonely.  Everyone around them is inside and warm, safe from the perils of the quest.  

I know folks like this.  Many glance at the roadside attractions and recognize them for what they are—nothing but bait in a trap.  Focusing on their goal and the prize awaiting them, they turn away and go the extra distance, shunning the alternative.  Be it fifty feet or fifty years, they will finish the course laid out before them.

But some—some no longer have their attention centered on the right thing.  Somewhere, over the years, the focus has moved from the Author and shifted to the runner.  

Look at me!  I’m giving up everything to participate in this race.  I’ve trained; I’ve sacrificed; I’ve put all I have into running.  

And, they have.  A lifetime of doing what is required of the athlete.  A lifetime.  But the focus is lost, the goal becomes fuzzy.  The spirit begins to hope for other things, other prizes.

The race is lost.  The runner is defeated—a failure.

So close.  So close, but so far.

Rabbits_and_MoonYears ago, I read a book called Watership Down.  I thought it would be about adventures and battles at sea, but it turned out to be about rabbits.  Rabbits.  I went ahead and read it.  I read it again.  And again.  You might want to do it someday yourself.  It is a story of trial and triumph—a story of perseverance, and of finding home.  

One of the long-eared creatures, Hazel, who has become the leader of the ragtag band of rabbits, is leading them to a place most aren’t sure even exists.  Throughout the nightmarish journey, he keeps repeating the words not far now again and again.  For hours he guides them through the dark, not sure himself of just where the goal will be found, but certain in his heart that the place for which they’re bound is very real.

When they reach their goal, they are ecstatic, admitting that even they weren’t absolutely certain the place to which he was leading them would be there.  

They had followed anyway, trusting their leader, even when they weren’t sure of the destination.

How about it?  Is the path growing dim, the road harder to make out?   Do you have a catch in your side?  Are you gasping for breath yet?  

Sure, there’s a comfortable stop just over there—a place where others are relaxing and enjoying the evening.  We could rest here.

But we haven’t reached our goal yet.  That’s up ahead still.

Let’s keep going. 

Not far now.  

 

 

 

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
(Hebrews 12:1-3 ~ NIV)

 

 

 

I was so tired and confused, I actually began to wonder whether you knew where you were going.  I could hear you in the heather saying ‘Not far now,” and it was annoying me. I thought you were making it up.  I should have known better.  Frithrah!  You’re what I call a real Chief Rabbit!
(from Watership Down by Richard Adams ~ English novelist)

 

 

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

Not to Go Back

The thunder cracks and the sky drenches the earth, as the dogs in my backyard huddle underneath the storage building, their own aluminum house seeming to them a refuge of limited safety.

I know how they feel.

Oh, not about the little thunderstorm.  Those blow in and out with a certain regularity these Spring nights.  I rather like the noise and bluster, feeling safe enough in my brick house.  It may be a false sense of safety, but it will do for now.

No.  I’m thinking more about this feeling I’ve had for awhile that the world is not such a safe place anymore.  Some days, it feels like I spend so much time hunkered down to avoid the shrapnel that I don’t accomplish anything at all.

Even more frustrating is, glancing around, I see folks on every side still advancing.  I’m staying in the same place, while they move toward the goal.

I hate that!

Did you ever learn to march?  Maybe in the service, or perhaps even in a marching band? 

Do you remember marking time?

I never served in the armed services, but I marched, both in Jr. ROTC and in the band.  I detested marking time.

Detested it.

The amount of energy expended simply to stay in one place was frustrating.  I wanted to just stop and stand there while all the others kept marking time.  Feet going up and down.  Never moving from the spot in which they started.

I never did that.  I just kept marking time with them because I was told to.  I never understood it, though.

The thing I didn’t know was that, in most instances, while one section of the entire group is marking time,  other sections are still moving into place.  Often, the section marking time would be required to blend with the moving section as they arrived at the spot where the stationary marchers waited, the combined squad continuing on down the field.

Have you ever tried to stand still and fall in step with someone who is moving past you?  What happens for the first few steps?  Yeah.  You struggle to catch up, and then to keep up, with the other members of the group.

But, if your feet are already moving at the same pace, even if you’re not moving forward, there is no lost effort in falling into step immediately as they approach.  The ranks remain aligned, the diagonals perfectly straight.

Flawlessly, seamlessly, the whole body moves forward into the formation they have planned and trained for ahead of time.

The storm is passing now, the sound of the battle in the skies retreating into the distance.  It won’t be long and the dogs will be rubbing against my back door, awaiting their next meal and a little ear-scratching from me.

My legs are soldiersinraina little tired, but I think I can mark time a little longer.   I’m not sure how long these missiles are going to be flying overhead. 

Still, I want to be ready to move out when the time comes.

Unlike the dogs, no ear-scratching will be required.

 

 

 

Not to go back is somewhat to advance... ~ Alexander Pope Click To Tweet

Not to go back is somewhat to advance, and men must walk, at least, before they dance.
(Alexander Pope ~ English poet ~ 1688-1744)

 

Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.
(Ephesians 6:13 ~ ESV)

 

 

 

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