Did You Just Call Me Stiff-Necked?

The phone jangled in my pocket signaling—well, I didn’t know what. That smartphone (much smarter than I—obviously) is always signaling one thing or another. Since I can’t always identify the different tones, I had to pull it out to see if I was missing something important.

The message was from one of my cycling buddies. “I am going to ride around 10:30.”

Even though it didn’t sound much like an invitation, it was. I like riding my bike. I like riding it with friends. I don’t even mind getting time away from my desk in the middle of the morning.

I turned him down.

“Not today. I woke up with a stiff neck.”

I hear it already.

What a wimp!

Stiff neck? Is that all?

You call yourself a rider?

I will readily agree with the criticism. I am a wimp. I let too much interfere with my riding. My commitment is definitely not on a level with many of my friends.

This is different.

Besides the pain (a secondary consideration, to be sure), there is the problem with my vision. If I can’t see my surroundings clearly, I won’t be able…

What’s that?

My vision? Well, no my eyes aren’t affected. 

It’s just that I can really only see what’s straight ahead of me if I can’t turn my head. You have to be able to view everything around you with a full range of vision when you’re riding. Otherwise, you’re just asking for disaster to strike.

I didn’t ride today. Sitting at my desk seemed a safer option.

No one ran into me at all while I was sitting here. It didn’t help my stiff neck any, but I was safe.

I didn’t get any exercise. Neither am I lying in a ditch.

Safety first. I suppose it’s a decent enough consideration. Still, I get the feeling I’m missing something.

Can we go back to the stiff neck for a minute? While I was sitting at my computer earlier, holding my neck with whichever hand was free, I began to wonder about that description of our malady.

MYMy malady.

I’ve known for a long time when someone calls you stiff-necked it means you’re stubborn

Persistent.

Obstinate.

Intractable.

Tenacious.

There are other words we often use in place of stiff-necked. The red-headed lady who raised me—always with an old saw at the ready for any situation—simply said I was stubborn as an old mule. Except for when she described me as pigheaded.

But then, I always like to put things (at least my own actions) in a positive light. I think the word I would choose is focused.

Focused is good, isn’t it?

I have a goal in mind and I travel, unwavering in my single-minded attention to the objective.

I listen to the voices around me and I am encouraged.

Follow your own path.

Seek your true purpose.

Don’t let anyone or anything convince you to abandon your dream.

We love comfort, don’t we? We long for safety.

Like this humble cyclist, we shun any hint of imprudence. Avoiding danger at all cost, we seek old, well-worn paths already known to us.

Then, when our Creator gives us new directions to follow, new roads to travel, we are reluctant to turn aside. Our intransigence, our single-mindedness comes from our stiff necks.

We have a limited field of vision. And, we like it that way.

Is it any wonder He used the exact words—stiff-necked— to describe His own followers again and again?

God wants us to open our eyes and be aware of our surroundings. All of our surroundings.  He wants us to see, not only the blessings He has for us, but also the difficulties and the tasks that await us.

When He has new things for us, we may have to shift our focus from what we’ve done previously to the new roads ahead.

I don’t know what those roads will be like. I’d like to think I’m past all the difficulties. I want to believe I’ve learned all the hard lessons.

We desire the pleasant, the comfortable. And, it’s possible that’s where He may lead us. David spoke of that path, of that lot in life:

The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places;
Yes, I have a good inheritance.
(Psalm 16:6, NKJV)

Somehow, I think it just as likely our road will take us through difficult and dangerous locales. It is where our God likes to make his new roads, the roads only people with open eyes and flexible necks will be able to follow:

See, I am doing a new thing!
  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
  and streams in the wasteland.
(Isaiah 43:19, NIV)

The wilderness is new and strange.  Wasteland seems uncomfortable, perhaps even dangerous.

New territory.

Often, when I ride my bicycle, I ride familiar, well-traveled roads. They always take me to the same places I’ve been to before. Every time.

I’d like to try a new road or two before I’m done.

I’m going to do that.

When my neck is feeling better.

                                       

 

 “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
(from The Fellowship of the Ring ~ J.R.R. Tolkien)  

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2019. All Rights Reserved.

Joy Is Right In Front Of Us

The pallet of pavers sits right outside my office window. It is a reminder of joy.

Hmmm.  I suppose that’s not something you hear every day.

How could a stack of red brick-like pavers symbolize joy?

That, I suppose, would depend on your perspective. It’s not really the pavers themselves that turn my thoughts to joy, but merely my recent experience with them. It’s possible by the time I’ve done the labor necessary to utilize the rectangular chunks of concrete, I may have a completely different frame of reference for them.

Life is like that. Today, joy. Tomorrow, toil. After that, who knows? Joy again. Or, pain. Perhaps, even sadness.

But, what about the pavers?

And, the joy? 

Not my joy—well, not exclusively mine—but I was there to get a taste of it.

Perhaps, I should explain.

A friend, who lives next door to my grandchildren (yes, to my daughter and her husband too, if it comes to that), offered to sell me the pavers a couple of weeks ago, so we made a deal. I would need to pick them up myself, no small feat, since there were more than three hundred of the heavy little bricks.

By myself didn’t sound like such a good idea.

I recruited my grandchildren to help me load and count them. Since they live next door to the fellow with the pavers. And, since there are four of them and only one of me. You know—by myself.

So it was that on a recent afternoon we found ourselves in the mid-July heat counting and stacking. Ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit sounded less furnace-like when I was in my air-conditioned living room than it did at the tailgate of that pickup truck.

The sun beat down and the sweat poured from our faces and various other locales. Still, there was nothing but good-natured teasing and joyful banter from the kids and their mom. Black widow spiders and crickets galore did nothing to change the mindset.

Perhaps it was the hundred-dollar bill I offered beforehand that set the mood. No, it couldn’t have been that; there was no such offer.

Maybe, it was the ice cream and pizza I had promised them. Again, no. All I promised them was the chance to help an old man move heavy, dirty pavers from one place to another, all while keeping track of how many they had each moved.

They worked with joy! With no promise of any payment whatsoever, they labored in the blasting sun for over an hour. Joyfully. And then, they offered to come to my house and help me unload every single one of the despicable things.

I don’t understand it. Whatever happened to the carrot or the stick? Shouldn’t they have been either offered a reward for their work, or conversely, a punishment should they refuse to comply? Isn’t that how children learn?

Joy. Simply in achieving a task and spending time with people they love. This is a mystery to me. Really. A mystery.

Perhaps we can work this out.

I am a follower of Christ, also known by the title Christian. We Christians talk a lot about joy, sometimes scolding folks who are unfortunate enough to call it happiness instead of by its proper title. I wonder if that’s the right way to go about demystifying joy.

Possibly not.

Still. What about this thing called joy?

Maybe we could start with, since I am a Christ-follower, well—Christ. You know—the author (the initiator) and editor (perfecter) of our faith. Come to think of it, there’s a passage that says just that. And here’s a surprise; the verse talks about joy, too.

We look to Him, the author and the finisher of our faith, who, for nothing more than the joy of completing the thing, gave His life on the cross, discounting the shame, and sat down beside God in heaven, at the right hand of His throne. (Hebrews 12:2 ~ my paraphrase)

Our Savior, the One who set us on the road of our faith and who will bring it all to completion, came for the joy of doing just that!

I’ve heard it suggested that the joy which was set before Him was being able to sit down beside His Father in Heaven. But He already had that before He came. If that was the joy talked about here, He needn’t have come at all (Philippians 2:5-8)

Yes, He was elevated to that position again, but He wasn’t working for that as a reward. Simply for the joy of accomplishing the task before Him, He came in love for the whole world.

I don’t need to tell you His work conditions weren’t the easiest. Early in life, His parents had to flee their homeland to find safety for Him. As an adult, His people rejected Him. The religious leaders hated Him, persecuting Him and His followers endlessly. He had no place to sleep. He was hungry. He knew the sorrow of losing loved ones. And finally, one dark day, the humans He came to save killed Him.

Joy? It’s still a mystery to me.

And yet, there is something…

Oh, yes! The children. My grandchildren. They did that. For the joy right in front of them, they endured.

And, there it is.

He said to them, unless you become like this little child, you’ll not see heaven. (Matthew 18:3 ~ my paraphrase)

As a little child, with joy and humility, we are to serve. In heat, sweating and thirsty. In cold and rain and floods and sickness and poverty and turmoil and…

He calls us to joy. Always.

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ…

Joy. In the journey.

And, while we move the bricks.

                             

 

A joyful heart is the inevitable result of a heart burning with love.
(Mother Teresa)

I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.
(Romans 15:13, NLT)

                             

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2019. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

Living Life in the Open

It’s time to tear down walls instead of building more.

I never knew him.

The same could be said of many whose voices have fallen on my ears — whose hands I have shaken — whose eyes I’ve looked into.

Him, I never spoke with — never laid eyes on.

The young African-American man was moved by an article I wrote and was kind enough to send a note telling me so.

We were connected only by the information superhighway, a mode of transport that never brought us closer than a note here, a click of the “like” button there.

Friends, they call it.

As if applying the label could tie the knots to bind individuals together. As if we could struggle past our differences in locale and in community.

He was a student of the martial arts; I a student of classical music. He was city through and through; I lock the doors to my car on the outskirts of any urban center, unlocking them only if there is no other choice or when I have passed the city limits sign on the other side.

And yet, it seemed there was something there — a connection of sorts.

Tears filled my eyes on the day he wrote the words: He’s gone. Sitting right across the table from me, and he dropped dead.

His best friend had died of a massive heart attack as they sat eating and joking. He never got over it.

I wrote a note, which he acknowledged. We exchanged other notes, but they were vague and disconnected. Something had changed.

A few months later, I was shocked to read the words from a relative in a message to the young man’s online friends.

Tonight, he decided there was nothing left worth living for. I’m sorry to have to tell you this way. Thanks for being his friends.

I know. I cry too easily. This was different.

A friend died, his life ended before he was a quarter of a century old.

I never knew him.

Still, he was my friend, my brother. The tears flowed.

They fill my eyes even now.

Can I tell you something? Even if I had never exchanged a word with him, we would have been connected. Even if his name had never been in the listing of friends I had made in my social network, it would be true.

If I haven’t made it clear enough before in my writing, let me say it again here:

We are all connected. All.

There was one Man who insisted on it. At the crossroads of history, He stood and said:

If I do this — if I allow myself to be the sacrifice — it will be for every human whose heart beats within his breast. I will draw all men to myself. (John 12:32 ~ my paraphrase)

I am not a universalist. Many who are drawn will not come. I know that.

And yet, what if all that is standing between one who is drawn and the Man-God I claim to follow is me?

Or what if — on the flip side of the coin — what if I’m the one who will help that one who is drawn to make up his or her mind?

If I say I love God, but do not love my brother, I am a liar.  The truth is not to be found in me. (1 John 4:20 ~ my paraphrase)

I watch with horror as the barriers are being erected. High and strong, the walls are being fortified.

Brothers dwell within every fortification, but few will venture out from behind their safety. Few can abandon their petty claims — to hold out a hand in friendship, to embrace family.

Family.

We argue about words and slogans, while people die.  We insist on our version of truth, while souls hang in the balance.

I’m convinced we will meet again one day, where no barrier stands

Together, beyond that dividing line between this earthly existence and eternity in Heaven, we’ll stand and will weep as we realize the powerful truth of His words.

All men. Black, white, brown — called out of every nation, every tribe.

Drawn to Him — away from the worship of false gods, from following false prophets, from teaching false doctrines.

We’ll weep until He wipes away the tears from our eyes Himself. (Revelation 21:4)

I said earlier that I cry too easily. I wonder.

Perhaps we need to cry more while we’re here, not less.

My young friend who abandoned hope sat and listened to music right before he took his last breath. Missing his friend who had died before his eyes, he thought he heard in the words of the song an invitation to join him.

Sadly, it seemed easier than walking a difficult, lonely road without him.

Another young friend, who also has known the horrible pain and emptiness of losing someone he loves, wrote recently of his struggle to comprehend a God who allows such things.

He has reached the conclusion — not lightly nor easily — that likely, it’s our understanding of God that is flawed and not the other way around.

We build a box and stuff God in it, much as we do with people.

Neither will stay in the boxes we have built.

God is too big.

People are too stubborn.

And yet, out in the open seems dangerous, doesn’t it? Too exposed, too brightly lit, too vulnerable.

But we’ve tried hiding. It achieves nothing lasting, leaving only suspicion and hatred.

Perhaps, it’s time to try openness.

There’s more room for hugging and handshakes out here.

There will even be some tears.

Somehow, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

                             

So let the light guide your way, yeah
Hold every memory as you go
And every road you take, will always lead you home, home

It’s been a long day without you, my friend
And I’ll tell you all about it when I see you again
We’ve come a long way from where we began
Oh, I’ll tell you all about it when I see you again
When I see you again.
(from See You Again ~ Franks, Puth, Thomaz ~ 2014)

How wonderful and pleasant it is
when brothers live together in harmony!
For harmony is as precious as the anointing oil
that was poured over Aaron’s head,
that ran down his beard
and onto the border of his robe.
Harmony is as refreshing as the dew from Mount Hermon
that falls on the mountains of Zion.
And there the Lord has pronounced his blessing,
even life everlasting.
(Psalm 133 ~ NLT)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2019. All Rights Reserved.

Hope Shines Bright

There were tears at the dinner table tonight. Some might have been my own.

I suppose in some families the occurrence is not all that rare. Arguments between siblings or even partners can end in tears. Lectures by mom or dad to children, too. Unkindness is no stranger to family assemblies. Tears flow. They just do.

That wasn’t the reason for these tears.

We sang a song—a blessing of sorts—before we ate. It wasn’t our usual dinner benediction. I’ve described for my readers in the past the lovely rendition of The Doxology which is frequently heard at our table. Often, just the singing of the beautiful lyrics with its well-known melody and harmonization is enough to make me feel I need no more food than that heavenly feast.

Tonight, my family—some might correct me and tell me it is her family, but I stand by my claim of them—sat around the table in their childhood home and one brother chose a different song to sing.

It has been a difficult day—a difficult few weeks, if it comes to that. It was a Friday night back a way that the phone rang and the hateful word was said again. After a year of feigned dormancy, the despicable thing has come back to life and is again a word on our tongues. Whispered. Spoken in quiet tones, as if the low volume might pacify its voracious appetite.

Cancer.

What an ugly word. A year ago, the major surgery to remove the diseased portion of a lung was pronounced a success. Then the word on the doctor’s lips was cancer-free.

Not now. This time the words are stage IV and chemotherapy.

Now, there’s a sneaky word. Chemotherapy. It sounds so benevolent, so peaceful. Almost like aromatherapy. Relax and drift away. Yeah, right!

Today was his first treatment. Five hours in the chair while his body was infused with numerous chemicals, the result of which no one can foretell with any level of certainty.

We expected to whisper the words. Tonight, of all nights, we would whisper.

Ah. But that was before. Before the benediction. Before the tears. Before the sermon.

Oh. I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I?

My brother named the benediction for us. We sang, my brothers, my sisters, the Lovely Lady, and others present. Yes, yes. They are her family. I know that. But they are also my family.

Ruth wasn’t wrong when she said the words to her mother-in-law Naomi all those millennia ago:

Your people shall be my people; your God shall be my God. (Ruth 1:16, NLT)

My family. My brothers. My sisters. My wife. I laugh with them. I worship with them. I weep with them. Ah, yes; I sing with them. Sometimes, all at the same time.

Tonight, my family sang. A song of who God was; who He is; who He always will be.

Great Is Thy Faithfulness. It’s not such an old song, as hymns are reckoned. Nearly one hundred years old now. But, the powerful words, the affirmation of the One we believe in—those are ancient. Ancient.

Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed,
Because His compassions fail not.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
(Lamentations 3:22-23, NKJV)

Clear, youthful soprano tones spilled into my ears from the teenaged girls to either side of me. I heard strong alto notes from more mature voices nearby. One brother and I carried the tenor part (well, he carried it—I just helped a little), leaving the older brother to handle the bass.

I still say the music in heaven won’t be very much sweeter. I hope that’s not too presumptuous. We sang of a God who knows our pain and our sicknesses, our weaknesses and our strengths, yet remains steadfast, never turning away from His path, nor from the ones He loves.

From our hearts, we affirmed the character and attributes of the Creator of all we see and know. I closed my eyes as we sang, partially to concentrate on the words and the voices, but mostly to hide the moisture that seemed to be leaking (without my permission) from them.

It was a holy moment.

As we ended, I heard a voice at my side speak quietly, I thought, almost in disbelief. “Look. Mom’s crying.”

She wasn’t the only one.

And, in a voice just as quiet, my/her brother—the one facing the life and death ordeal—preached a sermon (a short one) as he told us he had adopted as his own the words from that same song.

Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.

They were, I believe, the last quiet words spoken at the table this night. There was no more whispering, no more avoiding those ugly, hateful words.

Cancer. Chemotherapy. Prognosis.

God is bigger than any of those things.

Bigger!

He gives strength to face the burdens of the day.

He gives hope—yes, even bright hope—for what comes tomorrow, whatever it is.

Image by Another_Simon on Pixabay

 

It doesn’t make light of the serious situations we find ourselves in, doesn’t guarantee a life without trials, without pain. And yet, just to remember who He is reminds us of who we are in Him.

We walk today in His strength.

We face tomorrow with His hope.

His mercies are still new.

Every day.

 

Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
There is no shadow of turning with Thee,
Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not,
As Thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be.

Great is Thy faithfulness!
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.
(Great Is Thy Faithfulness ~ Thomas Chisholm ~ 1866-1960 ~ Public Domain)

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2019. All Rights Reserved.

 

Reaching Through The Thorns

It’s blackberry season. Where I live, anyway, it’s blackberry season. Maybe it is where you live, too.

The experts in such matters tell us blackberries are not actually berries but are fruit. Nobody really cares.

When one tastes the sweet, slightly tart fruits made up of seeds and juicy ovules, the immediate impulse has nothing to do with discussing their nomenclature or species,  but only with devouring as many as possible.

Image by siala from Pixabay

However, I do have a problem with blackberries. They say the best ones you’ll eat are the ones you pick yourself. They say. And, that’s why I’m not happy today.

Did you know the word bramble is used specifically to describe blackberries? You know what a bramble is, don’t you? It’s an impenetrable thicket.

Yeah. Impenetrable.

There’s a reason they use the terms bramble and impenetrable when talking about blackberries. Blackberries have thorns. Oh, those experts (the same ones who tell you it’s not really a berry) will tell you they’re not really thorns but are prickles. Never mind that those prickles can cut through even denim material with ease. They’re thorns.

Thorns. Berries.

Berries. Thorns.

Thorns. That’s what I see.

I know the berries are there. I know they’re good. I’ve tasted them. I’ve poured them like candy over my ice cream. I’ve eaten the cobbler and the pie.

Pure delight.

But I’ve sucked the blood from the cuts on my hand, too.

Pain.

I see thorns.

I don’t think I’ll pick blackberries today.

So, here I stand in the middle of the briar patch—you know, that’s what a bramble is, don’t you? Here I stand in the middle of the briar patch, looking at the thorns, and I’m hungry. Oh sure, there are blackberries all around, but oh—the thorns!

You’re laughing at me again, aren’t you? Here I stand, all dejected, and you’re laughing at me. Or, perhaps not.

Perhaps, the thorns have caught your attention, as well. You’ve been pricked more than a few times. The delectable blackberries you knew were yours for the picking surround you, but all you see are the hateful thorns.

May I say two words? Just two?

Br’er Rabbit.

Yes, you read that right. Br’er Rabbit.  That long-eared scoundrel from the pages of Uncle Remus. Or, if you prefer, from the frames of Disney’s Song of the South.

Br’er Rabbit. Born and bred in the briar patch.

Me, too. Br’er Paul. Born and bred. In the briar patch.

Perhaps, you too.

Our old friend, Job, it was who said the words: Every human born of a woman lives a short life, and even that will be full of trouble. (Job 14:1 ~ my paraphrase)

If that’s not enough, our Savior said it this way: While you walk around this spinning ball of dirt and water, you will have problems. Don’t let it get you down; I have already contended with the thorns and come out on top. (John 16:33 ~ my paraphrase)

We were all, every one of us, born and bred in the briar patch. There are no exceptions. For all of us, there are successes and failures, joys and sorrows, mountaintops and valleys.

We pick the delicious fruit. We lick our wounds.

We rejoice.  We weep.

We give thanks to a good and generous God, as we walk toward our destination.

And, when we stumble in the brambles and the dark of night, we remember the light He promised would light our way. Again and again, we test its power against the darkness. Again and again, there is no contest.

Your words are a lamp to walk by, a bright light to illuminate the path ahead. (Psalm 119:105 ~ my paraphrase)

Together, we walk. Through the briar patch.

Eating the fruit along the way.

And, it’s good. In spite of the thorns, it’s good.

 

Even when I walk
  through the darkest valley,
I will not be afraid,
  for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff
  protect and comfort me.
(Psalm 23:4 ~ NLT)

From this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.
(from Henry IV ~ William Shakespeare)

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2019. All Rights Reserved.

God Didn’t Make Little Green Apples

The apple tree is gone. Really.

Personal photo

Or, as the Munchkin coroner read from the death certificate of the wicked witch: …not only merely dead but really most sincerely dead.

I know you’ll be as sad as Dorothy was. It is just an apple tree, after all. Other trees were destroyed in the storm that blew through recently, some of much more import than my sad little apple tree. Century-old oaks, stately scarlet maples, huge sweet gums, all destroyed by the same careless gale that blasted past us as if none of it would matter in a year or so anyway.

It will. To me, it will.

I’ve written of the old tree before. I intended to do it in myself last fall but thought better of it. The eleventh-hour reprieve did it little good. My last written thoughts on the matter left me with hope (read about it here). Now seemingly, it was merely wishful thinking.

An old friend came this afternoon and helped me cut up the broken-off trunk. Right down to the ground, we cut it. As we drove away from the house later, the Lovely Lady suggested it was almost as if it had never been there.

I’ve walked around this evening with words in my head. I know they’re not true, but that doesn’t get them out of my head.

Personal photo

God didn’t make little green apples.

The words are part of a song written in the nineteen-sixties, sung by a number of country music stars. I realize there’s a phrase that comes before the one rattling around in my head, but it doesn’t matter to me right now.

I’m unhappy; can you tell?

As I write these words, I realize something else is making me unhappy. Something I don’t want to talk about. I’d rather go on about the sad little apple tree, lying in the scrap pile, awaiting transport to its final resting place.

I’d rather talk about missing the fresh apple pie and the homemade applesauce. But clearly, that’s not what’s going to happen here, so I might as well move on.

I’ve struggled with it for two weeks. I know—I’ve wrestled with it before and will again. Many of my readers will understand.

Two weeks ago, I got word that he was gone. My friend, too young to be old, sat at home in his chair and went away. I’ll never see him again in this lifetime. I’ll never again hear one of his corny jokes; never sit and listen to him play his beautiful Martin acoustic guitar and sing of the Savior he loved.

While I was trying to come to grips with the sadness Jack’s passing has brought on, I was reminded of another young friend who died unexpectedly eight years ago this week. The reminder hit me harder than I thought possible. I miss the kid more today than the day he died. He too was a guitarist who loved playing music that turned his listener’s hearts to worship.

I want to hear the music again. 

Anything besides this little ditty going through my brain right now.

God didn’t make little green apples.

But, He did, you know. Every single one of them.

Our Creator conceived and produced those little things from the nothingness of eternity. From the dirt He made, he caused the trees and other vegetation to spring up, guaranteeing that they would perpetuate themselves through their seeds. (Genesis 1: 11, 12)

While creation remains, the apples will come again. Oh, the trees will outlive their season, but the fruit will never fail. Season follows season, harvest after planting, as He planned it. (Genesis 8:22)

And, wouldn’t you know it, the myth of death for those who know Christ is as false as the little ditty in my head. Eternal life belongs to all who believe in Him. (John 3:36)

My friends haven’t been carried off to any final resting place, even if their earthly packages were.

The music has never stopped, even if temporarily we don’t hear it. I’m confident the Heavenly Luthier builds a much better product than CF Martin ever constructed here. I may even get to play with them someday.

But no, I think I’ll sing in the choir with that red-headed lady who raised me.  We’ll sing as loudly as we can there, too—just like the last I sang with her.

God did make little green apples.

You can almost smell the blossoms from here.

 

Personal photo

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2019. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It Used To Be True

I dare you to prove me wrong.

Oh, wait. That’s not the way to begin a discussion, is it? Let me take a fresh run at it.

We had Mother’s Day dinner at my son’s house, the Lovely Lady and I. It was fabulous. Food, prepared by the men in the family (with assistance from the young ladies who aren’t moms). Conversation, provided by everyone involved—really—everyone. And love, spread thick by our Creator from whom all such good gifts are given.

Before heading into the house, I noticed the new trees. Beautiful and straight, they were. Willow-oak trees, destined to provide shade from the blast of the sun’s rays. Sturdy saplings, surrounded at the base by. . . rocks?

I mentioned them as we sat around the table. The rocks, I mean. My son, always the pragmatist, shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s Arkansas. What did you expect?”

I thought about that for a moment. I was still trying to wrap my thoughts around a related event from just the day before.

In our own yard, a mile or so from my son’s, the maple tree we planted last spring is doomed because of a run-in with a rutting buck, so we purchased a nice Red Oak sapling as a replacement. 

I was worried as I prepared to plant the new tree in my yard. I do live in Arkansas, you know. Rocks grow faster than grass in some yards here.

And yet, optimistically, I told the Lovely Lady I wouldn’t need her help. I even suggested I mightn’t need the rock-breaker, that heavy solid-iron bar common to every area contractor’s and fence-builder’s arsenal. Armed only with a shovel, I headed out to mark the location for the new tree.

Imagine my amazement as the circumference was dug up without hearing the characteristic clang of rock on metal. I dug a circle over two feet in diameter and at least as deep without hitting a single rock. Not one.

Sometimes, what we think we know to be true isn’t true at all. 

But, I wonder. What if what we think we know to be true was once, but simply is no longer?

Not ten feet away from the hole I dug lie three or four large stones dislodged from the ground last week as I mowed. I know there are rocks under the ground. I do live in Arkansas, you know.

I’m thinking the prayer I muttered as I walked out to dig that hole had an effect. Possibly, my resolve to face the job with joy and expectation made a difference.

It’s possible.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say the ground had rocks under it before I started, but not when I stuck my shovel into it.

I dare you to prove me wrong.

You can’t, can you?

Here is what I know. There are rocks in Arkansas soil. I know that. I also know I dug this particular hole in Arkansas soil and hit not a single rock.

Okay, it’s a little silly, I know. I don’t really want to argue about it. 

The thoughts that have been roiling in my brain for a while, though—those we might argue about. They’re about a far deeper subject than just a hole in the ground.

I’m beginning to wonder about the impossible people in my life. You know the ones. They won’t ever change. Nothing can get through to them. It’s a complete waste of my time and emotions to even try.

We all know them. Some of us are them. Impossible people will always be impossible.

And yet…

And yet, we’re reminded that while we focus on the outward appearance, God sees into the heart of the person. (1 Samuel 16:7)

But, He doesn’t see our potential; He sees what His love and power can do to make that heart new. Everything old—everything—will go away completely. 

New. He makes us new. (2 Corinthians 5:17)

New. God makes us new. Click To Tweet

I said impossible, didn’t I? 

That must have been wrong. 

But, it isn’t. Our Creator is the one who calls things that never were as if they are. (Romans 4:17)

I really don’t know if He changes the rocky Arkansas ground to rich, black dirt, but I do know He changes the black, dead hearts of men to living, loving vessels of His grace.

I know that.

And I still dare you to prove me wrong. 

But I’d rather you prove me right.

 

 

Will power does not change men. Time does not change men. Christ does.
(Henry Drummond ~ Scottish evangelist/biologist ~ 1851-1897)

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2019. All Rights Reserved.

 

Shining Through

I’ve lived with her for over forty years and, still, she gets me into trouble. I’m sure I would never fall for these traps if it weren’t for her. Well—almost never.

It all started innocently enough.

“I need to pick up a few books at the used-book store, dear. Would you go with me?”

She knows the answer to that question. I can’t say no to a chance to expand the library. Especially at bargain prices. We went.

I found books. Many of them weren’t at bargain prices. I’m lamenting most the book of children’s poetry with hand-colored prints. It could have been mine for only a hundred twenty-five dollars.

I settled for a smaller volume that set me back only four. Four dollars for a book over a century old. There was no extra charge for the yellowed paper on which it was printed. None for the musty odor that emanates from the turning pages, either. A bargain. Really.

But you’re still wondering how she got me into trouble, aren’t you? Clearly, the cost of the little poetry book wasn’t the issue.

It’s just that I wasn’t paying attention and didn’t see the trap until it was too late. Caught! Sucked in like the tiny ants ambling past the doodle-bug pits in the dirt under the carport of my childhood home.

They never intended to go into those pits, either.

Okay. It’s just that the snack-cake bargain outlet is right next to the used-book shop. Thirty strides away from where I parked the pickup. Maybe fewer. I know it was close enough to smell the honey-buns. And, the Swiss cake rolls.

I haven’t yet been able to do the math required to determine how many miles I’ll need to ride on my bicycle. In truth, I’m barely starting to add up the calories I’ve ingested. Tomorrow.

But now you understand how it was that I came to be sitting that evening under the old table lamp, reading the little volume of poems, coffee cup in hand. There may also have been a honey-bun close by (or was it an oatmeal cream pie?).

I read poem followed by poem; after some, affirming the wisdom of my purchase and, after others, bemoaning the pricey volume that remained sitting on the shelf at the book shop. Still, for four dollars, it wasn’t a complete disappointment.

After half an hour of sitting—well, flopping really—I don’t sit while I read. Anyway, after half an hour. . .You know, I still remember the red-headed lady who raised me—years ago—sternly reminding me to get my feet off her coffee table. That was only moments before she shouted at me to get my feet off her wall. That’s right. Turned upside down, heels dirtying the wallpaper, I would read for hour after hour. As a child. I can’t read that way any longer. (You know—blood rushing to head, stiff joints, and everything else that comes with age.) Now, I simply scooch down in the easy chair, just far enough to get my feet on the chair facing me. It just feels right.

I never realized how low this position put me in relation to the lamp beside my chair. There never has been a reason to notice it. There certainly was this night.

After half an hour of sitting (I knew I’d get here finally!), as I turned a page, a shadowy image appeared momentarily behind the print. As the page laid back against the others, the image disappeared. I searched for it, but couldn’t find it again.

Thinking I must have imagined it, I continued reading the old volume. But, moments later, as I flipped another page, the image was back.

What was going on? Did I buy a haunted book? What was this strange image?

I separated the pages, holding a single one up to the light. There it was! Along with the skeleton-like lines that showed in the old laid paper, a watermark was clearly visible. A circle of leaves on stems, curled around the poet’s initials.

On every page held up to the light, I can see the same watermark. Somehow, I feel better about my purchase now. A watermark simply informs the interested party of who had made the paper, a modern-day signature of the artisan, if you will. I made this!

We don’t see watermarked paper much anymore. Not the real thing, anyway. I bet if the shop had known about it, they would have charged six, maybe even eight, dollars for the little volume! Or, maybe not.

Funny, isn’t it? Something most people would never see makes the book more valuable to me.

As I write, I begin to wonder if I’ve lost the interest of my readers. It is, after all, a discussion of things of antiquity, meaning nothing to most who will read these words. Perhaps something a little more up-to-date might help.

Those of my readers who live in the United States see watermarks in use almost every day. The purchase of a container of milk or a loaf of bread will suffice. Put your groceries on the counter and reach into your pocket as the cashier tells you the total. Smiling, you draw out a twenty-dollar bill and think nothing of the nice lady holding the bill up to the light to— that’s right! —verify the presence of the watermark. All modern U.S. bills over one dollar have them. Many overseas currencies use watermarks, as well.

It matters who printed the paper and put the watermark there. It matters a lot.

And then, I stop to think about the times we describe our future, the days and moments lying just ahead, as a blank page waiting to be written upon.

And suddenly, I wonder what sort of paper my life story is being written on.

I know what’s being written on the paper (and I’m not always happy about how it reads), but when my pages are held up to the light, what appears for all to see?

Is there an imprint on every page, and whose is it?

Is there an imprint on every page, and whose is it? Click To Tweet

Am I writing on paper that will last?

Some time ago, I noticed a fellow working in his garden, but he wasn’t plowing or planting. He was burying paper. Really. Burying paper. I stopped to express my puzzlement and he was happy to explain.

“I have lots of old business records and unimportant communication. The paper turns to dirt soon enough, so I bury it instead of sending it to the landfill.”

I’d like to write on better paper than that.

And, I’d like to see something far better than myself shining through when it’s all—the whole messy project—held up to the light. I believe He’ll do that. The words of the Teacher ring in my head almost daily: Let your light shine as you do good to men, and they’ll glorify God who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)

I want His mark on my life’s story. You?

Sooner or later, we’ll all be held up to the light.

Through all the scribbles and strike-throughs, the illegible script written when we had too little sleep and not enough coffee, what shines through matters more than anything we could ever write ourselves.

Quality paper. Clearly marked.

Definitely worth more than four dollars.

 

 

God does give us more than we can handle. Not maliciously, but intentionally, in love, that His glory may be displayed, that we may have no doubt of who is in control, that people may see His grace and faithfulness shining through our lives.
(Katie Davis ~ American author/missionary)

 

But on the judgment day, fire will reveal what kind of work each builder has done. The fire will show if a person’s work has any value. If the work survives, that builder will receive a reward. But if the work is burned up, the builder will suffer great loss. The builder will be saved, but like someone barely escaping through a wall of flames.
(1 Corinthians 3:13-15 ~ NLT ~ New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2019. All Rights Reserved.

 

A Day For A Hero

(Today’s post is a repeat of an earlier article.  I haven’t changed my mind.)

 

Scott was cool.  Well, to this one-time band geek he was.  The big offensive back was six feet tall and all muscle.  He was no slouch on the football field either.  I was sure he was going to be a star running back.

But, that was before.

I was there when it happened.  Not that I had any part in the event.

Okay.  To be honest, I didn’t even know what was going on.  I just knew something bad had happened.

Scott dated a girl in the band, so occasionally he and a few of his football buddies would come to our marching practices at the stadium. They would sit in the stands and yell encouragement once in a while.  We could tell they were having a good time, but most of us had no idea how good.

That all came to an end one Tuesday evening.  We heard the next day about how it had shaken out.

Photo by Mica Asato from Pexels

What we hadn’t been able to tell from our disadvantaged perspective down on the playing field was that the fellows kept up their high spirits in the stands with just that–spirits.  Each Tuesday evening, one of the guys would find someone to get him a carton of beer since he was underage.  He would distribute the bottles to the guys before they ascended to their seats in the bleachers.  Then they would spend the next couple of hours joking and cheering—and sipping.

It seems that finally somebody on the staff figured out what was happening and alerted the school administration.  On that fateful Tuesday evening, the boys were unaware a trap was about to be sprung.  However, just moments before the head football coach started up the steps to where they were, one of the jocks figured out something was up.

What would they do?

Scott made a quick decision.  He would be the martyr—the hero.

“Quick guys!  Shove your bottles under my seat.  Then move away from me before they can get up here.”

They protested, but only weakly.  Within seconds, the preparations were completed, and Steve was by himself in the stands, evidence galore to be found under his seat.

He was finished as a football player.  Shamed and kicked off the team, he would never play offensive back again.

The other boys?

They played football that Friday night.  They played football every other Friday night of football season as long as they were in school.

All because one guy had taken the brunt of their punishment. One guy had accepted responsibility for their contraband.

The school was abuzz the next day and for several after that.  It wasn’t fair!  They all should have been punished!  Scott was the good guy here, but he was paying the price!  Where was the justice?

Students protested to teachers and administration alike, but it was for naught.  The rules were clear and he had broken them.  Under-age drinking on school grounds—there would be no reversal of the decision.

Scott was a hero.

Or, was he?

It is Good Friday once again.  Today is a day to consider heroes.

No.

It is a day to consider The Hero.

Today, we commemorate the Cool Guy who took the beer bottles for every person in the world and claimed them as His own.

Right about now, I’m guessing there are some readers who are offended.

More than a few of you are unhappy I described the Savior as a cool guy–as if many who followed Him didn’t do so because they saw Him as what we would today call cool.

Some of you who wouldn’t touch a drop of alcohol if you were dying of thirst are offended I’ve equated your sins with that filthy stuff.

Others, who regularly quaff the liquid are offended because you think I’ve equated your sins with the refreshing drink.

Even though both assumptions are wrong, I will admit I’m almost hopeful that you are offended.

I am offended.

I am offended that The Hero had to take the penalty for my wrongdoing.  We’re not talking about being kicked off the team here.  My wrongdoing had a slightly more weighty penalty attached.

The penalty for my sins was death.

I am offended that I so lightly regard the Heroic act—accomplished on this day nearly two thousand years ago–that I return to my beer bottles again and again.

As Peter, one of our Hero’s followers (who himself faded into the crowd to avoid punishment) later reminded us, like a pig who has been cleaned up, we return to the filth of the wallow.

Is that offensive enough for you?

Try this on then–Like a dog, I come back to eat my own vomit.  Yes, also Peter’s words. (2 Peter 2:22)

Are you offended by the crudeness?

Are you offended by the crudeness? Click To Tweet

Will you, just for a moment, think of where the real offense was–and is?

God made a perfect place for us to live and we rejected Him.  Again and again, He offered ways of escape.

It was no surprise to Him, but again and again, the human race laughed in His face.

And then, in the fullness of time, at just exactly the right moment, He sent His own Son, the Hero of Heaven, to be born.

The Hero walked with us.  He taught us.  He loved and healed us.

And we repaid Him by shoving our beer bottles under His chair and slinking out into the night.

We were so crude as to spit on Him, and taunt Him, and beat Him.

We left Him to face the bitter end—the penalty for our evil ways.

Alone.  Naked.  Beaten. Bleeding.

And, in spite of the offense, and the crudeness, and the rejection, He never wavered in resolve.

He would take the offense to the grave.

Our offense.

Mine.  Yours.

Scott was a nice guy.  A loyal friend, even.  But, never a hero.

You see, if you count the beer bottles under his chair and then count the buddies who skulked away from him, you will come up with one extra.  Count them again.

You’ll see that I’m right.  One extra.

One that belonged to Scott.

Scott simply got what was coming to him.  He didn’t pay the price for anyone else’s wrongdoing, only his own.

Not a single one of the sins piled under that horrible, offensive cross on that Friday so many years ago belonged to the Hero who hung on it, bleeding and beaten.

They are too numerous to be counted.  I know.  I’ve contributed too many of my own.  Perhaps you have, too.

But, the fact still remains.  Not one was His own.

Not.  One.

It is a day to consider The Hero.

 

 

God pardons like a mother, who kisses the offense into everlasting forgiveness.
(Henry Ward Beecher ~ Congregationalist clergyman ~ 1813-1887)

 

For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die.  But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
(Romans 5:7.8 ~ NASB)

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2019. All Rights Reserved.

Chocolate Fried Memories

“Grandpa, these are perfect!”

They’re not. The little half-circle pies have imperfection written all over them, from the re-rolled pastry dough right down to the non-symmetrical pleats on the edges. The gooey chocolate filling is nothing more than cocoa, sugar, and butter—mixed in an indeterminate ratio.

Still, the young lady sitting beside me with a grin spread across her face isn’t wrong.

This is perfect.

It is.

The kids have been bugging the Lovely Lady and me for weeks.

“Are we ever going to have chocolate fried pies again?”

On the designated afternoon, they entered the house boisterously, every one of them anxious to help, either with mixing and rolling out dough, or filling and sealing up the little pockets.  Their mama made sure the finished product was done to a golden brown.

Pie in hand, I sit at the table with my children and grandchildren, but my thoughts are far away—fifty-some years and eight hundred miles away, if you must know.

The smile on my face then might have been just as big as the one plastered there now. The setting was certainly different. The family of seven was crammed into a beat-up mobile home with barely room for three or four. There was no nice artwork on the walls, no beautiful dishes in a hutch, no antique secretary in the corner. But, there was family. And there was love.

And, anything with chocolate in it was bound to be good!

Eagerly, the five kids awaited the result of the last hour’s labor. Oh, it hadn’t been that much labor for them, but they had helped—a little.

Mom and Dad mixed and blended, rolled and folded, and the result was going to be every bit as spectacular as those my grandchildren experienced just the other day. We were never disappointed with the little half-round pies that landed on our Mel-mac plates. Fried pie-crust, perfectly browned (even if one or two did get a little overdone), filled with gooey, chocolaty filling.

“More, please!”

With the same words we shouted all those years ago, I become aware that another round of the little desserts is needed—yes, needed. One doesn’t normally think of sweets as necessary, but these small pieces of family history are as important as any ancient dish in the cupboard, or painting on the wall, could be. 

It’s only flour and water mixed with shortening, and chocolate and sugar blended with butter. There is nothing to invoke the image of gourmet food here. Pennies were spent for each serving. Pennies. And yet, the value to me (and, I hope, to them) is more than that of any pricey restaurant I’ve ever been foolish enough to walk into.

Children need to know they’re part of the story. In the stories we tell and help them experience, they need to be able to connect the dots and know that the lines lead to them. The things we experienced as children, things our parents experienced, and their parents before them, need to be a part of their lives.

We don’t lecture them with the stories; we live them together—and then re-live them again.

Thirty years ago, I asked my father where the recipe was for the chocolate fried pies.

“Recipe? There is none. A little cocoa powder, a little more sugar. Maybe some butter to hold it together. I don’t know. Mix it together, tasting as you go. You’ll know when you get it right.”

Mix it together, tasting as you go. You'll know when you get it right. Click To Tweet

We made them for our children, long since moved into adulthood. They too, asked for more, please.

I guess we got the recipe right.

Tell your children the stories. Make the recipes. Play catch. Hike. Fish. Go to the library. Take long rides down the country lanes. You know what you love to do with them.

Do it. With them.

And, as you go, tell them the stories. Sing the songs. Laugh. Cry. But, let them know they’re part of a story. Let them know they’re part of The Story.

Each one of us is part of this wonderful ongoing adventure. Don’t let them think otherwise. Don’t let that smart-phone in your pocket get in the way. Don’t believe that a made-up story on a screen or in a printed book is more important than the story they, and you, are part of.

The folks at the church where the Lovely Lady and I fellowship asked me a few weeks ago if I could speak one recent Sunday morning. As I prepared, thinking about how our lives and stories are intertwined, I realized something. The folks back in Bible times didn’t have to be reminded they were part of the story. They grew up with the stories. They could read the genealogies and point to their great-grandparents, to their aunts and uncles, and know they were part of the story. The dots were already connected.

Still, the way it happens today, many centuries removed from those days, is much the same. Moses it was who reminded them with these words:

Teach my words to your children, when you sit at home, when you walk down the street. Talk about them when you go to bed at night, and then again, when you get up in the morning. (Deuteronomy 11:19)

Tell the stories. Illustrate them. Act them out. Sing them. Our children deserve our best efforts. Boring facts and meaningless figures won’t cut it.

What’s that?

Where’s the recipe?

There is none. A pinch of humor added to some history, held together with a lot of love.  Or, is it a pinch of history added to some love, held together with a lot of humor?   I don’t know.  Mix it together, tasting as you go.

You’ll know when you get it right.

The eyes light up, the smile spreads, and the voices all ask for—well, you know what they ask for, don’t you?

More please.

Family history.  Faith’s journey.  It’s all part of the story.

Connecting the dots. And, eating chocolate fried pies while we do it.

Who knew making memories would taste so good?

This is perfect!

 

 

 

And did they tell you stories ’bout the saints of old
Stories about their faith
They say stories like that make a boy grow bold
Stories like that make a man walk straight

And I really may just grow up
And be like you someday.
(from Boy Like Me, Man Like You ~ Rich Mullins/David Strasser ~ lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group, Capitol Christian Music Group)

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2019. All Rights Reserved.