Not Woebegone

Music has charms to soothe a savage beast. 

The words, written in verse centuries ago, are quoted frequently, even today. 

I don’t disagree. 

I’m remembering a weekend, some time ago, when I reveled in the harmonious, percussive notes of a skillfully played hammered dulcimer, listened in awe to the sweet, mellow tones of my favorite trumpet player, and wiped away tears at the conclusion of an amazing vocal duet rendition of an aria from an opera (you read that right, an opera). 

In between those numbers that weekend, I played and sang a bit myself, as well as heard several other artists who were skillfully adept at their craft. 

This savage beast’s heart was soothed.  For awhile.  But, for some reason, I hear something else in my head tonight.

Well, it’s been a busy week in Lake Wobegon. 

I can even hear the quiet, smooth tonality of Garrison Keillor’s baritone voice as I write this, although I’m not quite sure why those words come to mind.  

I suppose I may have been a little down in the mouth recently.  You know—the worries of life are starting to pile up here and there; the things I usually can control have gotten away from me a bit. 

Instead of a perpetual grin, the corners of the mouth are turned down somewhat, and it’s harder than usual to work up to a smile. 

Thus, the descriptive phrase down in the mouth seems to cover my attitude most appropriately.

Every time I ever heard Mr. Keillor utter the opening sentence to the story-telling session on his radio program, I was struck anew by the name of his fictitious town. 

He avers that the name comes from an old Native American word meaning the place where we waited all day in the rain for you.  It is not exactly the correct origin for the word it sounds like, woebegone, but it comes awfully close. 

The idea of waiting in the rain for someone who never arrives just about describes the depth of the feeling of being woebegone, a word that really comes from the Middle English meaning beset by woe.  Either way, an apt description for someone who is down in the mouth.

As I sat and listened that weekend to the jaw-droppingly beautiful tones that emanated from the young lady’s silver trumpet, my inner being was touched.  And then, as mother and daughter sang their operatic duet in a language I will never understand, I ached for more. 

But more of what

I know by experience that I soon tire of the same music, played or sung again and again.  A recording would not suffice, nor would simply attending recitals day after day to hear the artists ply their craft. 

I am convinced beauty on earth is given to remind us there is more.  Something more satisfying is to come. 

More.

What we have here, beautiful as it may be, is only a shadow of what is to be ours one day.

What we have here is only a shadow of what is to be ours one day. Click To Tweet

Many centuries ago, the writer of psalms understood that, even as he struggled with his own inner sadness.  He was woebegone, down in the mouth, but still, he wrote deep calls unto deep, and told of his Creator’s unspeakable love and glory, evidenced by the world around him. 

Like Job, the afflicted one, he outlined his troubles and then reiterated, for I will yet praise Him. (Psalm 42:7-11)

Some of us drown our sorrows with alcohol, some with work, some with denial.  I listen for hours to music, reveling in the intrinsic beauty of the chords, and the harmonies, and the melodies. 

For all, it is the same.  The time comes when reality must be faced. 

The music ends, the fat lady sings, if you will. 

We who believe have a promise that will still keep us on the path.  The knowledge, the certainty, that there is more is enough to give us strength and perseverance to go on through what lies ahead. 

Not around and not under.  Through.

I don’t know about you, but I’m going on. 

The oases along the way—the music, the fellowship, the joy—those only lend credence to the promise that we’re just nomads, travelers in this world, on our way to a better place.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m enjoying the soundtrack while I’m here.

Even waiting in the rain.

Not woebegone.

 

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When can I go and meet with God?
(Psalm 42:1,2 ~ NIV ~ Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.)

Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.

(The Mourning Bride by William Congreve ~ English playwright and poet ~ 1670-1729)

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

Wind in the Oaks

I sit at my desk and listen to the wind.

Change is coming.

At the end of the street, the last leaves from an autumn, very nearly forgotten, whirl and take flight.  The commotion is impressive to the casual witness—less so to one who has observed the scene from the vantage point of my window over the last couple of months.

From his play, Macbeth, Mr. Shakespeare’s description of life seems apropos:

It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The leaves go in circles.  Now to the end of the road, now across to one yard to lie breathless for a time.  With the next gust of wind, they revive, shoving each other aside in their hurry to rise on the current, only to scurry back around the cul-de-sac and alight once more.  Right back where they started.

Probably, within feet of where they tumbled from the tall oak trees last fall.

Going nowhere fast.

But the wind roars still.  Through limbs of trees, standing naked in the late winter sun, it shoves—and grabs—and pulls.  Like so many windmills twirling in the sky, the giant oaks twist their extremities this way and that, almost it seems, trying to catch hold of the leaves spinning below.

I’m sure it may be only my imagination—it is my imagination, isn’t it?—but, for just a moment—the barest hint of a moment—I have the idea that they would—if they could—reattach themselves to the leaves that abandoned them mere weeks ago.

What a silly notion.  Old dead leaves are of no use to the trees now, save possibly to nourish the ground around them as the natural process of decay and deterioration does its work.

I know this wind is blowing in another change in the weather.  A warm day today, but cool again tomorrow with the front blowing in.  Spring is coming.  Rain will fall. Stronger winds than these will swirl and stream through the treetops.

Even now, the mostly sleeping giants are showing tiny dark nubs on the spindly ends of their gray branches, nubs that will become leaves.  They will be new, green, living things—luxurious and lush—covering the entire tree with vitality and vigor.

And yet. . .  And yet today, the towering trees are naked—bereft of their former glory.

The wind blows, and merely accentuates their lack—adding insult to injury, the red-headed lady who raised me would have said.  Surely, there is something about which one could complain.

But, you know, as much as I prefer spring to winter, as much as I love a leaf-covered tree more than a bare one, I would never look at a tree in winter and suggest it would be better off with the old leaves back on it.

I complain frequently about winter, suggesting that everything is dead.  I am reminded, as I sit in my chair and watch the empty branches wave, that the tree has never been dead.  Never.

It is simply directing all its resources to the roots underground and getting ready for something spectacular to happen.  A little rest before breaking out.

It seems to me that things are a little drab right now.

Am I the only one who thinks about the past and how good that life was?  Am I the only one who wishes I could turn back the calendar a season?

Do you think we really could put the old dry leaves back on the trees?  No, I suppose not.

But, here is what I know.  Without worry of being proven wrong, I know it is true.

The earth turns and revolves around the sun; the wind blows and the rain falls.  Suddenly, without warning—well, almost without warning—the explosion of color and life will be upon us.

To everything, there is a season; a time for every purpose under heaven. (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

And, the Creator has made everything to be right in its season.

And, He puts eternity in our hearts so we know to look ahead and not behind.

He puts eternity in our hearts so we know to look ahead and not behind. Click To Tweet

Seasons come.  They go.  Sometimes, we are so busy, we have no time to consider the work He is doing in us.  But, we gain strength; and, we grow.

Sometimes, in the drab time, we sit and contemplate the reason for our very existence.  That also, is a season through which He moves us and makes us stronger.

And, sometimes, as they have this week, tears come.

And the tears, like the rain which has just begun outside my window, fall to the ground and water the future, to ensure that it will be brighter.  

Through tears, and even a little bit of dreariness, He will bring us, step by weary step—to spring once again.

There are indeed, Mr. Lewis, far better things that lie ahead than any we’ve left behind.

I wonder if the wind will still be blowing.

                              

I sit beside the fire and think
of all that I have seen
of meadow-flowers and butterflies
in summers that have been;

Of yellow leaves and gossamer
in autumns that there were,
with morning mist and silver sun
and wind upon my hair.

I sit beside the fire and think
of how the world will be
when winter comes without a spring
that I shall ever see.

For still there are so many things
that I have never seen:
in every wood in every spring
there is a different green.

I sit beside the fire and think
of people long ago
and people who will see a world
that I shall never know.

But all the while I sit and think
of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet
and voices at the door.

(J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring )

‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the Lord Almighty.
(Haggai 2:9 ~ NIV ~ Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.)

 

 

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

And the Stars Sang Together

I suppose I may have actually gone for a year or two without looking at them.  I really can’t remember.  I may have.

It’s not that I ever stopped believing in them.  I just never saw them, so they almost didn’t matter.  To me, they didn’t matter.

It’s funny when I actually write the words.  No, not funny.  Stupid.  And, sad.  Mostly sad.

I looked at them tonight.  The stars, I’m talking about.  I walked out into the winter night, just as the temperature showed thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit, and simply stood there staring at the spectacular light show in the sky.

Do you think the light show was good at the last concert you attended?  I don’t get to many rock concerts, but they’ve changed a little over the years.  Besides the obvious increase in volume, I mean.

The light arrays on the stage are astonishing in their scope, utilizing everything from LEDs to old-style incandescent spotlights to pyrotechnics, all operated by one man sitting at a control board, or perhaps even pre-programmed and actuated by computer software at the proper time. 

The lights move up and down or side-to-side, oscillating and flashing all the while.  They don’t just highlight the musicians on stage, either.  Some are aimed at the audience and, from time to time, shine so brilliantly in their eyes that the band members onstage are not even visible at all.

Still.  The gaudiness and brilliance of those stage lights fade into a dim memory as the attentive human wanders under the night sky.  

I stood in my shirt sleeves tonight, the glory of the heavens spread out above me, and, for a few moments, forgot how cold it was.  The blue-black canopy of space overhead was overwhelmed by the constellations and galaxies, and the night sky was alive with light.  Pure, brilliant, untouched Creator’s power.

For the better part of twenty years, the Lovely Lady and I lived in a house which was part of a commercial zone in our little town.  We could often see the big orb of a moon as it rose on the eastern horizon, or hung like a giant smile overhead.  And, the sun had no problem showing its face day after sweltering day through the long humid summers. 

But, to walk out the door and look up at the stars in the sky was never as easy as that.  The man-made lights shone garishly in our eyes like so many rock-concert LEDs obscuring the main act, the stars, if you will, overhead.

It’s easy, when you don’t often see the stars, to forget how spectacular that light show is.  Over a period of years, one might be forgiven if it’s not on their top ten list of the most important things in creation to take time for.

It would be foolish, however, to decide that the stars are no longer shining in the sky.  Just because we don’t take the time, or make the effort, no one would aver that they don’t exist anymore.

I wonder.  Do you suppose any of those stars gave up on me in the years when I wasn’t able to walk out under the dome of the heavens in the middle of winter and be blown away by their splendor?  Maybe just one called it quits.

No?

The faithful in northern Greece were encouraged to stay just that—faithful—in the letter written to them by the apostle Paul. He described them as stars that shone in the sky, in the midst of a damaged and deceived generation. (Philippians 2:15)

Nearly every day, I read of someone else who is advancing the claim that our time—those of us who follow Christ—is ended.  We’re not needed anymore; not relevant to our culture.

I could have made the same claim during all those years of living under the halogen glare of parking lot and street lights on poles.  Who needs stars when you have automatic lights that shine on demand?

Who needs stars when you have streetlights? Click To Tweet

The stars are irrelevant!

And yet somehow, they’re still shining.  Still in their constellations.  Still wheeling across the cosmos in synchronization with every other ball of burning gas set into motion all those centuries ago by our Creator.

And our sun, dwarf star that it is in a galaxy of giants, ushers in each new day, and season, and year, just as if it is as relevant today as it was on the day when the stars sang together and the angels shouted for joy at the marvelous creative power of our God. (Job 38:7)

Somehow, I think I’ll keep shining too.  

No one may be looking at the little light right now.  There may never be a single voice that testifies to the power that makes my light visible.

It doesn’t matter.  He made us to shine.

Not like the fake, gaudy light of the stage array, nor even like the brilliant, confusing glare of Gideon’s lamps in the enemy camp. 

But, simply with the bright, steady light of His love and grace, we shine.

With the bright, steady light of His love and grace, we shine. Click To Tweet

Lighting the way to Him.  For a world blinded by too many lights that illuminate nothing at all, we are lighting the path to Him.

We shine.

                               

And I feel above me the day-blind stars
Waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
(from The Peace of Wild Things ~ Wendell Berry ~ American farmer, author, and poet)

 

Look up into the heavens.
    Who created all the stars?
He brings them out like an army, one after another,
    calling each by its name.
Because of his great power and incomparable strength,
    not a single one is missing.
(Isaiah 40:26 ~ 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. 2018. All Rights Reserved.

How Low Can You Go?

I knew she’d listen to every note I played.  I wished the professor had suggested she sit somewhere else.  Somewhere she’d hear other musicians and their mistakes.

Instead of mine.

The young high school junior was visiting her university-going sister on campus.  No doubt, it was an exciting time for her.  I still remember that age.

Wide-eyed and inexperienced, the world held exhilaration at every turn.  College years would be a chance to be out on your own—away from the careful direction of overprotective parents.  A campus visit ahead of time offered a stimulating preview of the freedom that was to come.

Her sister is a member of the little chamber orchestra they are kind enough to allow me to participate in at the small liberal arts university.  Since the visiting young lady is also a French horn player, the professor thought it would be nice for her to sit in the horn section.

On my right.  Where the bell of my horn points.

I just knew she would hear every mistake and bobble proceeding out of the wayward instrument.

Well.  There was nothing for it but to get through the hour.  I started my warm-up.

I like to start with long tones—mid-range notes lasting several seconds each, descending down a scale before coming back up to finish on the original note.  After a few moments of that, I play some arpeggios—open chords—mostly descending until I reach a point at least two octaves below the starting midrange note.

The low pitch I end on is quite low, somewhere in the vicinity of what a tuba player would call mid-range.  Since my warm-ups always include that note and those leading down to it in the scale, I like to think I have developed a rather nice tone in that range, a range most horn players never attempt.

I end my warm-up by playing the arpeggios on up to the original mid-range and then up another octave before sliding back down to finish on the original note with which I began.

I saw her turn her head to look at me as I finished my warm-up.  I thought perhaps she wanted to say something, but the professor was already talking, introducing the young lady to the whole group.

It wasn’t a relaxing rehearsal.  We played a piece I only remember reading once before, so many of the passages were unfamiliar.  I stumbled and muffed more notes than I care to count, acutely aware of the girl’s presence beside me through all of them.

She heard every note.  Every one.

At the end of the rehearsal, I said a few polite words to her.  I hoped her visit would be all she was hoping for.  She was also polite.  We talked for a few seconds and she asked one question.

“What kind of range do you have?”

Immediately, I jumped to the obvious conclusion.  I supposed she meant: how high can you play?

I jokingly mentioned the highest note I’m comfortable playing is a high G, but pointed to the young lady on the other side of me, suggesting that she was the one who played the high C’s when necessary.

The girl wasn’t quite satisfied, starting another question.  

“But, what’s the low. . .” 

Before she could complete the question, her sister called her over to discuss what was next in their day’s schedule.  She never got a chance to ask what was on her mind.

I went on about my day, not thinking again about the girl’s curiosity.

I’m thinking about it now.

She wanted to know about my low range, not my high range.  She had heard my warm-up and knowing that most horn players avoid those low registers, wondered about how low I could go.

I’m wondering the same thing tonight.

Do you know I don’t have a very good high range when I play my horn?  Most players with similar experience to mine are quite adept at playing the highest notes on the horn.  Even many young players have a high range much superior to mine.

I wish it weren’t so. 

I want to play the high notes.  But, I can’t.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while now.

Why can I play the low notes (the ones most horn players eschew) with ease, but I can’t reach the high pitches?  What’s the problem?

As Mr. Tolkien puts it in his description of the scatter-brained innkeeper in his famous tale, even though he thinks less than he talks, and slower; yet he can see through a brick wall in time. . . 

I’m somewhat the same, thinking less than I talk (at times), but I believe I can see the answer to my problem.

You’ve probably already arrived at the solution, especially since it’s been explained at length up above. 

I’m good at the low notes because those are what I concentrate on every time—every single time—I pick up my horn to play.  My warm-up is a regimen I perform—without fail—before I look at a piece of music, before the conductor raises the baton for the first time, before even the first tuning note is sounded to be sure all the instruments are capable of playing the same pitch together.

I play low notes.  Every time, I play low notes.

I’m good at low notes.  Really.

But, I want to play high notes.

And, the Apostle said, the thing I want to do, I don’t do.  But, the thing I don’t want to do, that’s the very thing I do. (Romans 7:19

Of course, he’s talking about more important things than playing a horn, but then again, so am I. 

The thing I practice is the thing I will perform. Click To Tweet

The thing I practice is the thing I will perform.  It is true in all walks of life.

If I practice complaining, one would never anticipate that I would rest patiently and with confidence.

If I practice arrogance and pride, I will never perform with humility.

If I live continually in defeat and expectation of loss, I can have no expectation of joy or fulfillment.

When the time comes to play the brilliant high notes in a concert performance, if I have resigned myself to practicing only the low and middle registers during every rehearsal, I will never—ever—shape my lips to sound the right notes.

I read today the words of a friend who is, by all earthly wisdom, fighting a losing battle.  His battle is for his life.  I was shocked to read of his laughter and joy as he fights the battle.

But tonight, I understand.  He is practicing for the performance still to come.   In anticipation of what he calls a joyful death, he’s decided to practice joy now—today, and for the rest of his days, however many he has.  

I’ve been working on the low stuff for too long now.  I’ve gotten much too accomplished at it.

I want to play the high notes.  I want the folks who are doomed to sit and listen to me to hear the good stuff.

It’s time for a new warm-up routine.

Today’s as good a time to start as any.

 

For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.
(Aristotle ~ Ancient Greek philosopher ~ 384 BC-322 BC)

 

Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you.
(Philippians 4:9 ~ 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. 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Standing at the Gate

He did it with a smile on his face.  I saw it happen.

We were waiting for the nice lady at the bank to make a copy for us.  I can’t help it; I watch people.  So, while we waited, I watched.

I watched him lock himself and his dad in the vault.

Just to be clear, it wasn’t the big door—you know, the thick slab made of concrete-filled steel and secured with a time-lock.  This was what they call the day gate—a lighter affair, made with open metal rails that can be seen through.

Even so, I watched the little guy, all of three or four years old, swing the barrier back and forth a time or two.  It moved smoothly and noiselessly, so his dad, engrossed in his own activity inside, had no idea of what was happening.

The lad swung it and let go, reaching quickly to hold it and flip it back.  Looking up at me, he smiled.  There was no forethought or malicious intent in his face, simply the joy of being a child and a moment to entertain himself.

He swung it again, reaching for the edge, but missing.  I held my breath, hoping he’d catch it before it reached the end of its arc.  He didn’t.

Click!

The little fellow gave a tug at the door, but it stayed put.  He didn’t.  With one last sheepish grin, and an almost pleading look at me, he turned and dashed back into the room where his dad was still taking care of the task he had come to do.

The nice lady came back to our table and my attention was diverted from the scenario in the vault.  Even so, as she talked, it nagged at my consciousness.

I never heard a sound.  Still, moments later, I knew something was amiss.  I turned around and, there at the metal gate, saw the boy and his father standing.  This time, the pleading eyes were in the father’s face.  He didn’t say a word, but shrugged his shoulders and grinned—that same sheepish grin I had seen on the boy’s face earlier.

I suggested to the nice lady that she might want to let them out of the vault and she gasped, rushing to get the key and open the gate.

Not a single word passed between the man and me.  He needed help. I did what was in my power.  It wasn’t much.

Still, I haven’t been able to get the picture out of my mind.  The man, standing behind the gate, waiting for freedom.  In my memory, I see nothing but bars—that, and his face behind those bars.

Almost. . .Well—almost as if he were in prison.

I know it’s a stretch, but I can’t help but wonder if there are bars that lock me in, again and again.  Then again, what if the bars actually lock me out, too?

Prison isn’t only being locked in and held against my will.  Sometimes, prison is a place of my own making—the freedom of going where I want and doing what I have chosen.

Bondage can look a lot like freedom to us, if we’re not careful.  The little boy swinging the gate in fun found that out.

I’ve locked myself in more times than I care to count.

Just tonight, I read an email and slid home the bolt on the prison of fear.  Tomorrow may bring an unhappy encounter, so I  entered the cell tonight willingly, muttering to myself as I pulled the gate shut behind me.

The fear of what tomorrow may bring is a barren cell, fraught with pain and distress.  And yet, I may lie sleepless in this dreadful place the entire night.

A conversation with someone earlier today brought about the opportunity of making personal comparisons.  Without a thought, I acknowledged my superiority and in doing so, firmly latched myself into the prison of pride and arrogance.

The incarceration of the prideful may seem to be, at worst, a low-security lock-up.  But, like most hardened criminals, we return again and again, never reformed, to hear the gate click behind us as we fall into the habit of a lifetime.

There are so many prison doors.  Greed.  Gluttony.  Bigotry.  Selfishness.  Lust.  The list stretches as far as the cells in the cell block above.

Sometimes, it seems that others close the doors for us, just like the little boy in the bank.  It matters not.  The lock snaps closed and we are trapped once more.

I’ve spent enough time locked in those cells.  Maybe that’s true for more than just me.

I remember that there is One who holds the key to every door.  Every single one.

Isaiah, the one who seemed to see Him clearly through all the centuries that lay between, said the words first.  He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the prisoner—to open the locked gates behind which they await freedom.  (Isaiah 61:1)

Jesus used the same words to describe Himself.

He is the Key Holder—the Opener of Doors.

He is the Key Holder—the Opener of Doors. Click To Tweet 

Locks, prison doors, barred gates—they mean nothing to Him.

I’m ready for better things.  Easier than the lady at the bank opening that gate, the prison doors will swing wide.

Time to walk free.

Free.

 

What a fool am I, thus to lie in a stinking dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty? I have a key in my bosom called Promise that will (I am persuaded) open any lock in Doubting Castle.
(from Pilgrim’s Progress ~ John Bunyan ~ 1628-1688)

 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed.
(Luke 4:18 ~ NKJV ~ Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)

 

 

 

 

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

Breathing in the Shadows

The moon is blue.  Super blue.

Yes, there are scientific reasons for the terminology.  You may seek them out for yourself.  For tonight, I am just happy to sit on a stump and watch the shadows.

I watched the moon for a while, beautiful thing that it is, but as it approached its zenith, my neck objected, so I bent down to relieve the tension.  That’s when I noticed the shadows.

The world is awash in shadows.  At midnight.

The old mulberry tree, its spindly limbs bereft of leaves, stretches bony fingers this way and that across the cold sleeping grass.  There’s a ghost story waiting to be told there, were the world not so brilliant in the moon’s glare.

I glance at the two Labrador retrievers cavorting nearby, and can’t help noticing their shadows mirroring their every leap and crouch.

Shadows in the moonlight. Creator’s handwork.

Basking in the beauty of the late night, I smile.  For a moment. 

Then I feel it.

I knew I would.  There is a high-pitched whistle as I breathe in.  And out.  I struggle a bit to hold down the cough that is inevitable.

Time to go in.  I bid goodnight to the dogs, with a warning for them to behave themselves until morning, and I head indoors.  Indoors, where it’s warm.

I bring my shadows with me.  Shadows of resentment.  Shadows of doubt.

Shadows of negativity.

Wait.  That’s a bit redundant, isn’t it?  A shadow is already a negative, of sorts.  If the object is the real thing—the positive, the shadow must be its negative.  The un-thing, one might say.  

So, here I sit, my un-thing weighing on my chest, and I watch the two dogs still cavorting outside—two black shadows dancing with their black shadows.

Not a care in the world.

I watch them and I am envious.  Nighttime is the worst when bronchitis hits.  The asthmatic aspect makes it difficult to breathe; the cough that follows makes it nearly impossible to sleep.

In the darkened house I lie watching the shadows.  Shadows on my soul because of the shadow creeping into my lungs.

Do you feel sorry for me yet?  You shouldn’t.  I have come to realize that some shadows are darker than others.  

Just tonight I read the words of a new friend, one I’ll probably never meet in the flesh, who is in his sixth year of suffering with cancer.  His lungs and other organs are full of tumors, some even visible through his skin.  Four surgeries, multiple courses of chemo, and still the shadows persist.

He sits in his chair, receiving the infusion of chemicals which will bring waves of nausea and pain, along with rashes, and he prays for those sitting in chairs around him.

He prays.  For them.

I breathe as deeply as I dare, trying to keep from coughing and waking the Lovely Lady, but my mind is already on another friend who has a constant shadow, as well.  Her lungs are working at a fraction of their capacity, the only cure, a transplant.  

She’s not a candidate for a transplant.  And yet, her cheerful encouragement comes as an almost daily occurrence—to friends, to strangers—she points out the bright spots rather than the shadows.

If we walk in light (as He is in light), we walk in community with each other, and in fellowship of His saving grace. (1 John 1:7)

We walk this road with heroes.  Heroes of faith who show us the light rather than point out the shadows.

When we are in light, there will invariably be a shadow.  But, you knew that already, didn’t you?

When we walk in light, there is always a shadow. Always. Click To Tweet

The shadow is strongest in the brightest light.  Sunlight—moonlight—streetlight—you name it.

We can focus on the un-thing, the shadow, that comes from walking in His light, or we can keep our eyes on the things that are.  

Life.  Love.  Heaven.  

Things that are.

The Apostle (my namesake) was adamant when he spoke of it.  The temporary things we are suffering here are nothing (un-things) compared to the glory we shall one day know. (Romans 8:18)

Some, like my bronchitis, are more temporary than any of them, likely to disappear within days.  Others may last a lifetime.  Or, they may claim that life even.  It’s still true.

The shadow is not the real thing.  It never will be the real thing.

The shadow is not the real thing. Click To Tweet

Breathe easy.  The day will come when the shadows will flee forever, the light in our eternal home, our God, Himself.

No more tears.

No more shadows.

Only Light.

Breathe deep.

 

Sometimes, all I need is the air that I breathe
And to love you.
All I need is the air that I breathe.
(from The Air That I Breathe ~ Albert Hammond)

 

Even though I walk
    through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.
(Psalm 23:4 ~ NIV ~ Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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

Justification

I am offended.

The note was polite, but to the point.  The writer needed to express something that had been in her mind for awhile.  To be fair, the words weren’t I am offended, but it seems offensive to me.  There is little difference.

Something I have done—language I have used in my business for years—was offensive.  I selected the language.  I placed it in a prominent place in my advertising.

I offended.

I don’t know the person.  Someone else in the church she attends has made numerous purchases from my company over the last few years.  The writer of the note is not even my customer.

And yet, I read the words on my screen and my spirits sank.  What would I say?  How would I respond?

Do you know how easy it is to believe one has been attacked?

Is it not a simple thing to take offense at the one who has taken offense?

My mind, as it does, piled up the words with which to defend myself.  I know how to use the English language.  I am accomplished in the skill of bickering.

I want the chance to justify myself.

Why is that my first reaction?  Is it true for everyone?  When we sense that we have been admonished, do we all want to deflect the blame?

I wanted to look better than I did in that moment.

I knew I could come out on top.  I knew it.

Sleep hardly came that night.  I would present my argument to the imaginary jury I had collected in my head, letting loose with the big guns and obliterating the enemy.  I win!

But, a quiet voice from deeper inside asked a one-word question.  Just one.

Enemy?

With a mental shrug, I’d decide to think about it tomorrow, only to find myself, moments later, facing the imaginary jury once more.

Time after time I built up my defense against the enemy, only to face that one-word question again.  And, again.

Enemy?

But he, seeking to justify himself, replied, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29)

Neighbor.  That’s the word I wanted.  Not enemy.

Neighbor.

And the second is like the first: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. (Mark 12:30-31)  Jesus said it was the second most important commandment, essentially part of the first.  The lawyer who wanted to justify himself (in Luke’s passage) knew it by heart.

I do, too.  Yet, every time I am confronted with my own shortcomings, my reaction is the lawyer’s.  Every time.

I want to justify myself.  I want to make myself look better.  And, more often than not, that is accomplished by making someone else look smaller.

Seeking to justify ourselves, we reply.

Seeking to justify ourselves, we reply. Click To Tweet

We use words like snowflake, over-sensitive, entitled, and coddled

Or, we use words like arrogant, insensitive, and bully.  

Either way, the result is the same.  We tear down our neighbors to build up ourselves.

Words were the cause of my offense.  My next words would either increase the offense, possibly making me feel justified, or they would begin the healing process.

What to do?

Over forty years ago, a wise man wrote, in his beautiful script, in the front of a new Bible he and his wife were giving to their youngest son.  He knew his son well, having spent nearly twenty years in close proximity to him. 

The words, still quite legible today, were exactly what the argumentative, impatient youth needed.  I can attest that he was more annoyed than overjoyed to read them the first one hundred times or so he saw them written there.

The Preacher said the words, thousands of years before.  Their truth has not faded one iota.

A gentle answer turns aside wrath, but argumentative words only stir up more anger.  (Proverbs 15:1)

I haven’t always lived by the exhortation.  In truth, I haven’t lived by it even a majority of the time.

I’m learning. Finally.

Still—I want to know.

Why do we add offense to offense over and over?

Why is it so difficult for us to bind wounds instead of making them bleed more?

Why is it so hard for us to recognize our neighbors, instead, identifying them as enemies, almost without fail?

Why is it so hard for us to recognize our neighbors? Click To Tweet

In a world filled with hate and vitriol, we—all who follow Christ—are called to bind up, and carry, and treat, with the same love we have for our God and Savior, all who walk the same ground we do.

It’s not optional. 

It’s not.

I’m justified.  By Him.  I don’t do that myself at all; it’s what He does. (Ephesians 2:8)

How I respond to others is how I show them what’s really in my heart—in my very soul.

Gentle words.

Peace.

 

Be at War with your Vices, at Peace with your Neighbours, and let every New-Year find you a better Man.
(from Poor Richard’s Almanac ~ Benjamin Franklin ~ 1706-1790)

 

Do everything without complaining and arguing, so that no one can criticize you. Live clean, innocent lives as children of God, shining like bright lights in a world full of crooked and perverse people.
(Philippians 2:14,15 ~ NLT ~ Holy 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. 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Need to Know

I saw a UFO tonight.

Well, perhaps I should qualify that statement before going any further.  I wouldn’t want you to think I was some wild-eyed conspiracy nut, believing the government is hiding the truth about those strange lights in the night sky, or possibly, even in cahoots with some alien society from the far reaches of outer space.

Still, there were strange lights in the night sky.  The dogs had warned me about them.  I should have paid attention.  I didn’t, simply suggesting to them I might consider that they were bad dogs if they continued their barking.

They went to bed.

I’m still awake.  I wonder.

I said it was a UFO, didn’t I?  It was, indeed, an unidentified flying object.  To me, it was.  That said, someone somewhere knows what it is.

I suppose, given the proximity of our home to the local university, it could have been a drone from their photography department taking night shots of the local community.  If so, they’ve got a shot of me standing in an empty field in the sub-freezing temperatures, staring up at the lights in the sky.

Oh, look!  There’s that Phillips nut.  You can really tell he’s outstanding in his field, can’t you?

Honestly, I don’t know what the lights were.  I stood and watched them until the cold drove me back inside.

I would like to know what that thing was, though.  I suppose I’ll probably never discover that.

I bet tonight’s the only night I’ll lose any sleep over it.

                              

I went to the public library with the Lovely Lady the other day.  We split up as soon as we entered the front door, each having a pretty good idea of where we’d find the books which would entertain or educate us.

As I stood contemplating a novel or two (entertainment, not education), she came walking past, showing me the important find she had made.

I laughed.  It was a bird identification book.

You see, the Lovely Lady has her own version of the UFO.  I suppose it was over a year ago when she had her first sighting.

No.  That’s not right.

It wasn’t a sighting; it was her first hearing of that bird’s song.  She has described it to me several times in great detail, the onomatopoeic repetition being almost as enjoyable as actually hearing the bird myself.

She wants the unidentified winged creature to stand up and be recognized.  Absent the willing participation of said feathered creature, she is hoping for aid from other humans in giving a name and image to the sound she has heard numerous times.  In recent days, she has enlisted the assistance of my sister in the bird-hunt.

I am not participating.

Some things I just don’t need to know.

Some things I just don't need to know. Click To Tweet

I am happy that the bird sings.  I wish it good health and long life, with many descendants.

I don’t need to know what it looks like, nor where it makes its nest.  Just as I won’t be searching diligently to find the source of the lights in the sky earlier tonight, I am content to leave our fine feathered friend alone to sing his song.

                              

Why is it we need to delve into the details of so many things?

Why?  How?  When?

Why are we not content simply to know that they are?

We’re not just talking about UFOs and unfamiliar birds here, are we?

There are days, and sometimes weeks, and yes, even years when we walk without answers—in the dark, if you will—not knowing how or when we will ever see the light of day again, but somehow believing that we will see it.

I claim to walk by faith, but I put the lie to my claim if I demand the evidence before I’ll take another step.

Faith is all the evidence we need of things we cannot see with our own eyes. (Hebrews 11:1)

How about it?  Have you crossed the shaky bridge to the unfamiliar terrain on the other side and recoiled at what you found there?  Do you need more information before you determine it’s safe to move on ahead?

Why do we hazard the bridge in the first place?  Do we suppose the One who told us to take that first step is surprised at what we found when we took the tenth step?  Or the fiftieth step?

Here is what I know.

When I hear a bird singing in the tree, I don’t need to see it to know it’s real.  I don’t need to know what family it is descended from to believe it is near or that its Creator will care for it.

I don't need to know. I need to trust. And walk. Click To Tweet

I don’t need to know.  I just need to trust.

And walk. 

And walking, I remember that my Father cares for me more than He does for that elusive bird in the bush. 

He told me that—the One I’m following.  (Luke 12:7)

And, that’s all I need to know.

For now.
                              

 

I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.
(from The Republic ~ Plato)

 

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
    How unsearchable his judgments,
    and his paths beyond tracing out!
(Romans 11:33 ~ NIV ~ Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

 

 

 

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

Good Medicine

Stand there and take your medicine!

The red-headed lady who raised me wasn’t done with the scolding yet, but she could no longer make herself heard over the blubbering.  The words had an effect, if only for a moment, as the little towhead tried to work out in his head what kind of horrible-tasting medicine she was going to force down his throat.

The moment passed.  It was only another of her sayings, a mini-parable describing the situation.

I’ll admit it:  I’ve always been something of a crybaby.  Perhaps it was because crying seemed to deflect scolding—or punishment.  My brother and I once thought we had figured a way to make our dad’s spankings less severe.  We would begin to cry early in the process and amplify the noise with every swat.

It didn’t work.

Still, discipline always—from my earliest days—brought out the whine-factor.  And, since I earned—seriously, I worked tirelessly for them—so many sessions with the belt or paddle, I learned how to mope and cry better than most.

It’s a life-skill which has served me well. Perhaps, not served me well, but it has been trotted out with some frequency over the years.

I would tell you I haven’t had a whipping for many years, but it wouldn’t be true.  Oh, no one has hit me with a paddle or strap, but discipline has come even so.

While we draw breath, lessons are learned the hard way.  For some of us anyway, it’s the only way we remember the principles.

While we draw breath, lessons are learned the hard way. Click To Tweet

The Preacher suggested that God disciplines the ones He loves, just as a father does for the child he delights in, the boy or girl he is teaching to become a mature adult.  (Proverbs 3:11-12)

But, what if—what if—the events we imagine to be discipline are nothing more than stops on the way to maturity?  Could it be the things I’ve been moaning and whining about are simply bridges to be crossed, milestones to be left behind as the finish line draws ever nearer?

A young man—somewhat wiser than I—sat across the table from me in the restaurant the other day and made a surprising statement.

This past year has been quite a successful one for you, hasn’t it?

I looked at his face quickly to see if he was joking.  He wasn’t—the sincerity in his voice mirrored in his features.

I picked up my glass of water to draw from the protruding straw.  I wasn’t thirsty; it was just a delaying tactic.

This could take a minute.

It didn’t.

I wanted to argue.  I wanted to say it had been one of the worst years of my life.  But, in that tiny interlude in which I stopped to think, the truth dawned.

Another epiphany.  Well?  It is still the season, is it not?  Why should not the time when we consider the coming of The Light be a time in which we become aware of other beacons of truth we have missed along the way?

In the time it took to take that drink, my mind ran through the year just past.

Every step—every stumbling, plodding step—has brought me a little closer to being the person He wants me to be. 

It hasn’t been pleasant.  In fact, there’s still a bitter taste in my mouth as I look back.

But, it’s been good medicine.  Medicine which has had its intended result.

The young man isn’t wrong.

Call it discipline; call it a growth spurt.  We never choose those, but they are necessary for life to continue.

I remember the horrible taste of cod liver oil in my mouth.  I still recall the sting of Merthiolate in an open cut.

I lived through them and thrived.

I stood and took my medicine.

We still need to grow more.  God has plans for how to make that happen.  He knows the plans.  They are for our good and not to hurt us.  (Jeremiah 29:11)

Good things.

Stand there and take your medicine.

 

 

Though the doctors treated him, let his blood, and gave him medications to drink, he nevertheless recovered.
(from “War and Peace” ~ Leo Tolstoy ~ Russian author ~ 1828-1910)

 

Dear friend, I hope all is well with you and that you are as healthy in body as you are strong in spirit.
(3 John 1:2 ~ 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. 2018. All Rights Reserved.

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.