Perhaps, More Than a Dream

Winslow_Homer_-_Rowboat1Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.

I was once again contemplating the idea of eternity tonight when suddenly, I became aware that the notes of this song were wafting through the air in my office. I had to laugh.

Already, I see the heads nodding. No, not in agreement with the humor I found in the juxtaposition of the song with thoughts of eternity. Heads are nodding in the realization that it has finally happened. The idiot has finally snapped. Gone over the edge completely.

Why would one be contemplating eternity? And, what in the world is funny about hearing a children’s song while contemplating such a peculiar subject?

Perhaps, we’ll consider just one thought at a time, okay?

I was an odd child, I will admit. At a very young age, I struggled internally with big ideas, while the everyday things went unnoticed. Perhaps all of us did, but I really can’t speak for anyone else. I know that eternity was one concept with which I wrestled many times. I would sit in church and sing the words of that last verse of “Amazing Grace” and I would be AWOL for the rest of the church service–lost deep in thought. “…Ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun…We’ve no less days…than when we’ve first begun.” How does that not mess with a kid’s head?

The idea of eternity terrified me. No, not the idea of Hell or Heaven, just the thought of a period of time that went on and on without ever ending. To a child of seven or eight, the concept was as foreign as having all the ice cream you could ever consume and no one ever making you stop eating it.

Everything came to an end.

Church services ended with “Amen.” Cowboy movies ended with the hero riding off into the sunset. Trips in the car ended with us pulling up to Grandma’s house and piling out of the old station wagon. The school year ended with all the kids walking out and throwing their papers in the wind to cover the playground.

Everything came to an end. Everything.

I never thought to talk about it with a grown-up. This was too big, too–I don’t know–sacred. You didn’t talk about such things; you just grappled with them until you could move on. I think eventually, I just decided that if the grown-ups in my life could face that terrifying endless and timeless uncertainty, so could I. Besides, Jesus would be there. I wanted to be where He was.

As an adult, I still want to be there.

I have come to realize though, that eternity is not only on the other side of that door we don’t want to talk about. It doesn’t begin with death. It didn’t even begin with our entry into this world at birth. Funny thing–if I had known it back then, my mind might have been boggled even more than it was. The reality is, eternity works both ways–both backwards and forwards. How’s that for an enigma?

We live smack-dab in the middle of eternity! We’re not waiting for it. We’re not looking forward to it. Eternity is now!

I’m not a kid anymore.

Today, I look to the future and I want to be sure that I’ve done everything I can do with this little piece of eternity that I been given to work with, here in this place and time. I’ll move on to another locale for the next part of it. Right here–right now–I have things that must be accomplished before this part of the eternal timetable moves on and I am no longer able to do what needs to be done. In some ways, I feel like Alice’s White Rabbit as he rushes about, terrified that he is late and will miss the very important date. Eternity is passing at a frighteningly rapid pace.

Those were the thoughts in my mind tonight as the little bit of doggerel you began with up above made its way into my consciousness. Talk about a dichotomy!

Life is but a dream.

The old children’s song lulls us to sleep, believing that our lot in life is nothing more than a summer afternoon’s outing on the quiet stream. All work together, rowing in cadence with those around, and everything will come out just fine. It almost seems apropos that the song is a round, the endless cycle sung repeatedly by all the voices, each one carrying on the hypnotic mantra, urging the boat’s occupants to move gently.

Don’t rock the boat! Don’t, for heaven’s sake, attempt to go upstream! “Happy, Happy, Happy!” I can just hear Phil Robertson’s (from Duck Dynasty) voice, calling out the words to keep the natives calm.

Life is but a dream? Okay, perhaps I wasn’t really amused. It wasn’t funny–“Ha-Ha”–just wildly inappropriate that the two ideas should enter my head at the same time.

I have noted that a number of my friends are attempting to slow down the pace of life a bit these days. “Don’t worry, be happy,” say their notes. Jettison the things that stress you; do only the things which make you feel good; friends who make demands on you aren’t really friends, so dump them.

How can we live the dream when rude people keep waking us up?

But, you see–that’s just the trouble with dreams. You always wake up. Reality intrudes. They end. Just like everything in that seven year old’s world a lifetime ago. Life isn’t a dream.

I’m kind of happy to know that it isn’t. I want to row upstream. I want to blaze paths where the placid stream doesn’t flow. And, eternity won’t wait; it just keeps moving through our lives, as it has for everyone else in all of recorded history.

Time to wake up and get busy!

I’ll take eternity, thanks.

“As if you could kill time without wounding eternity!”
(Henry David Thoreau~American philosopher/author~1817-1862)

“Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.”
(Ecclesiastes 3:11)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2013. All Rights Reserved.

Advertisements

The Fallacy Of Reptile Physicians

Image

Dewy-winged dragonfly at dawn.  Photo:  Jeannean Ryman

The aging woman ambled beside me through the dew-covered grass toward the orange trees, her slight frame dwarfed by my lanky six feet.  She wanted a few oranges to juice for herself and the old man waiting on the front porch.  He was himself a large man, easily tall enough to reach the fruit she needed, but the disease we now call COPD (then, just emphysema) had stolen away his ability to walk any further than from one room to the next inside his home.  Even though she couldn’t reach very high into the trees, with a grandson or two just across the street, it wasn’t much trouble to get help when they wanted to enjoy the sweet, fresh-squeezed juice that the annual crop from the nearby trees yielded.

As we headed into a stand of unmowed grass, I noticed a look of apprehension on my grandmother’s face.  Her eyes were fixed on a flying insect a number of feet away and it was obvious that she was not happy to see it there.  As we continued on our course, the first insect was joined by a second, flitting and performing aerial acrobatics some seven or eight feet away from the first.  Grandma stopped dead in her tracks.  “Snake Doctors!  If they’re around, there’s a snake somewhere around too.  I’m going back to the house.”  She spun around and headed for the back steps with much more vigor than she had evidenced on the way out.  I chuckled and continued on with the bowl she had shoved into my hands, soon filling it with the sweet colorful fruit that grew prolifically on the trees.  I finished the job without seeing a sign of any snake.  The pair of dragonflies cavorting nearby certainly didn’t seem too threatening to me.  I had always liked the queer insects.

When I again joined the pair in the house, my grandmother explained.  “I hate snakes!  And, those snake doctors, those dragonflies, are a sure sign that a snake is around.  They are always near snakes.”  I didn’t want to be impolite, so I waited until I got home to laugh out loud at her foolish words.  In fact, a couple of years later, when I joined the Citizen’s Band radio craze, I chose as on air pseudonym, my “handle” as it was called, “Snake Doctor”.  Can’t you just hear it?  “Break one-nine.  This is the old Snake Doctor, looking to get a smokey report.  I’ve got the hammer down and coming your way…”  The vernacular was sillier than the name, by a wide margin, but I still took a lot of ribbing because of that handle.  

It wasn’t until a few years later, as my intellectual curiosity grew, that I realized that my grandmother wasn’t alone in her belief that the dragonfly was not to be scoffed at.  Indeed, the legend in the southern United States has it that these evil creatures actually stay near snakes so that they can sew them up if they are injured.  They are called by one foreign culture, “Devil’s Needle”, and by another, “Eye Poker”.  In South America, the phrase applied to the unfortunate bug is “caballito del diablo”, meaning “the Devil’s Horse”.  Also, much like our southern lore, in Great Britain the Welsh name for the insect translates to “Adder’s Servant”.  In fact, the very name “Dragonfly” evokes frightening imagery, as if the legendary fire-breathing creature has been miniaturized and embodied in the so-ugly-it’s-beautiful insect.  It is, even today, a much maligned insect…one might even think, a dangerous one.  They couldn’t be further from the truth.

This speedy flyer (one of the fastest insects known) is, in fact, a predator, but it eats flies and mosquitoes in huge quantities, helping the human race in an amazing way.  In Myanmar (formerly Burma), the native people have “seeded” the water with the larvae of the dragonfly for generations, understanding that the result was a crop of predators who would help to control the yellow-fever carrying mosquitoes.  The one group of people who do have a valid beef with these speedy, winged insect traps is the beekeepers.  The larger families of the dragonfly have been known to catch and ingest their fair share of honeybees.  That said, they don’t attract snakes and certainly don’t cure them, don’t attack horses and give them diseases as the Australians averred at one time, they almost certainly aren’t used by the Devil to weigh man’s soul as Swedish folklore teaches.

We humans don’t seem to be very adept at determining cause and effect.  The dragonfly is often found near the tall grass at the water’s edge where snakes also happen to frequent.  For some reason, that makes the two species close allies.  The folks in Australia observed horses jumping and stamping in obvious distress at the same time that dragonflies were flitting about.  It is probable that the dragonflies actually were eating the small parasites which were actually tormenting the horses, but the poor “Horse Stinger” got the blame.  The very shape of the body makes the insect the target of disdain and fear, but perhaps the same could be said of my own body when viewed through the eyes of other species.  We jump to wrong conclusions, based on inaccurate assumptions again and again.  The result is a bad rap for an immensely beneficial species.  Fear and animosity are passed from generation to generation, and truth is a victim, as is the persecuted dragonfly.

You do realize by now, that I’m not really talking simply about an insect, don’t you?  Just as I have, you have also seen the individuals, persecuted and maligned by society, their lives made a living hell because of hearsay and conjecture.  They were seen coming out of a certain building; they were observed handing someone a package; they talked to the wrong people.  Who knows?  They just might not wear the right kind of clothes, may not have the right haircut, perhaps don’t even bathe as often as they should.  They are “not like us” and therefore dangerous to our way of life.  Perhaps, they speak a different language, have too many junk cars in their yard, or paint the trim on their houses the wrong shade of green or yellow.  The list goes on forever and it becomes clear that we’re no better at judging humans than we are at judging insects.  

At some point, we need to realize that we might, just might, be using the wrong criteria.  It is obvious that on our own, we have no clue whatsoever.  If you would perhaps allow me to make a suggestion, just one–I would like to propose that we use the original owner’s manual.  Try as I might, I can’t think about this problem without believing that the Teacher had this in mind when He suggested…no, insisted…that we love our neighbors in exactly the same way that we love ourselves.  It is, after all, the most important rule given besides loving our God with everything we have within us.

That’s it.  No convoluted recovery plan.  No mission and purpose statement.  Love others like we love the person in the mirror.  You know what you need to do to put the instructions into action.  Now might be a good time to get busy on that, if you haven’t already done so.  Tell someone about it, too.  Just about the time they start to whisper a juicy tidbit in your ear would be a good opportunity to share it.

I still love dragonflies.  They are amazing, beautiful creatures.  Well, okay, I’ll admit that if you see a close-up of their eyes (all thirty thousand of them in those compound goggle-looking things), you could possibly be freaked-out.  Still, what astounding design and purpose, all wrapped up in an odd and peculiar package…

Almost like…well…like you and like me, huh?

“It is the peculiar quality of a fool, to perceive the faults of others and to forget his own.”

(Cicero~Ancient Roman scholar and statesman~106 BC-43 BC)

“Stop judging, so that you won’t be judged, because the way that you judge others will be the way that you will be judged, and you will be evaluated by the standard with which you evaluate others.”

(Matthew 7:2~ISV)

(Special thanks to my childhood friend, Jeannean Ryman for the use of her amazing photograph today.  Jeannean has a gift for seeing the beauty in the ordinary and then giving us a glimpse.  This and many other wonderful examples may be viewed at http://jeannean.zenfolio.com if you are interested.)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Collecting Moments

“I’ve never felt a more moving moment in my life.”  The man in front of me is not given to dramatics, but is a down-to-earth fellow, just taking a break from his 9 to 5 retail job.  Our conversation has run the gamut from a discussion of the merit of microphone stand designs to his dismal weekend of moonlighting as a Karaoke DJ.  Somehow the conversation moves to a recent trip he took to New Orleans, where the emotional experience mentioned above occurred.  As he speaks, his countenance softens and his voice, once loud and boisterous, lowers in timbre and volume.  He describes an early stroll through the streets of New Orleans, just before daybreak one chilly morning.

His steps took him through Jackson Square, past the statue of General (and later President) Andrew Jackson and up the steps of the Moon Walk to stand near the mighty Mississippi River.  As he stood, looking almost due east and welcoming the first rays of light from the rising sun, he realized that he wasn’t alone.  He glanced behind him and saw an elderly gentleman, wearing a hat and a long coat.  As the man, probably about seventy years old, approached, he stood for a moment looking at the rolling water and the sun’s rays reflecting gently off the shimmering surface.  Then, rubbing his hands together, he doffed his hat and dropped it onto the sidewalk in front of him and from somewhere under his coat, produced an ancient brass trumpet and put it to his lips.

As the sweet notes started from the horn, my friend recognized the opening passage of an old patriotic favorite, “America, the Beautiful”, perhaps better known to many as “Oh Beautiful, For Spacious Skies”.  He reports that the old fellow never missed a note, never searched for the next tone, but played through the tune with many a flourish and grace note, flawlessly.  As I listen to him tell of removing his cap and standing by the river’s edge with tears flowing down his face while the sun begins to rise full and bright above the water’s surface and the old musician plays on, I too feel the tears start to well up.  The beauty of the moment is enough to move even me as I view the scene through his misty eyes.  It is a moment to savor.

I have become a collector of moments.  If you’ve stuck with me for long, you already know that.  Most of the articles I post are remembrances of such moments.  I don’t want to lose them in the fog and mist of age, when memories dim and existence is limited to meals, and personal needs, and waiting.

I collected another moment yesterday.  I had heard that the momentous event called the “Transit of Venus” was occurring and had shrugged mentally, giving the obscure phenomenon only a peremptory nod with a joke posted on my favorite social network, and then retreated to “real life” once again.  I couldn’t help but notice though, late in the afternoon, that a fellow had pulled into the parking lot across from the music store and was setting up some sort of optical equipment.  Some time later, a phone call from a friend suggesting that I walk across the street to see what was going on was met with another verbal shrug.  Big deal.  A spot on the sun.  Then I remembered.  This event would happen once in my lifetime.  The next time it occurs will be in another one hundred and five years.  I don’t intend to be here still.  I made the walk.

Photo by snowpeak

What an eye-opening experience!  The gentleman with the telescope was happy, almost eager, to give me a view in the lens of his expensive equipment.  I inquired about eye protection, but he assured me that it was safe.  A filter was in place and would block out any dangerous light.  The view was breathtaking.  I had never in my life looked at the sun through a telescope, much less even imagined the sight of the tiny (when put in this perspective) planet Venus as it crossed between the Earth and the Sun.  A tiny, but distinct dot was really all that appeared of the planet, and my brain went into overload as I contemplated the immensity of the celestial body that provides us with warmth and light.  My thought immediately shifted to the realization that, if Venus is roughly the same size as the Earth, it follows that Venus’s comparison to the Sun is also the Earth’s.  The next natural step was to realize how small I am in comparison to the immensity of the Earth.  Right about then, this little speck on a speck started feeling mighty small in the grand scheme of things.  It was definitely a moment.

Still feeling small, I once again crossed the street to enter the front door of the music store.  As I entered the building, a young voice called out, “Hi Grandpa!”  One by one, other voices chimed in as they vied for my attention.  It was only for a short period of time, but suddenly, I felt huge.  I was important in their world!  There is nothing like the love of a child to put thoughts that have been skewed back into perspective.  Again, a moment to be collected and savored.

Certainly, the huge Sun still hung overhead; the tiny, yet immense, planet Venus continued its transit across the sky between Earth and that great ball of flaming gas.  But here, in my world,  we were all life-sized, living and loving, making a difference in the moments that matter to each of us.  Memories are being made and these moments will be gathered into the collection.

Like all collectors, I will continue to enjoy taking out the accumulation of moments, both moving and eye-opening, joyful and heart-breaking.  The collection of a lifetime is all of these and more, ever growing and changing.  Thankfully, even in the midst of collecting thoughts of immensity and insignificance, I find again, in my collection, that moment of realization that One, who cares for every single part of His creation, loves this small, insignificant man.  And once again, I feel humbled and important at the same time.  What a moment that was!

What’s in your collection?  There will be many moments today, even.  There is still plenty of time to gather a memory or two.  Maybe you could even share one with a friend like me.

I promise, I’ll try not to cry when you do…

 

 

 

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,

Old Time is still a-flying; 

And this same flower that smiles today, 

Tomorrow will be dying.” 

(“To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time”~Robert Herrick~English poet~1591-1674)

 

 

 

“Indeed the right time is now.  Today is the day of salvation!”

(2 Corinthians 6:2b~NLT)

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.

Good Honest Wear

“Is this an old guitar, Paul?  I’ll bet it’s just one of those ‘relic’ models, isn’t it?”  The young man was genuinely mystified.  I had hung the battered guitar on the wall just last night and already, it was drawing attention.  Instead of answering his question, I suggested a test.  “Why don’t you tell me?” I asked, as I handed him the instrument.  He was game and held it for a moment, feeling the weight, hefting it up and down a time or two to get the feel in his hands.  “It feels right,” he declared.  I encouraged him to play it for a minute, which he did.  “Yep, it’s really what it looks like, isn’t it?  How old is this thing?”  The suspicion in his face was gone; nothing left there but admiration for the vintage instrument which he now cradled carefully in his arms.

I told you the other day about the fifty year-old guitar which Art had retrieved from its time of service on the continent of Africa.  This is the same guitar.  After our conversation, Art decided that my music store would be a trust-worthy place where the instrument would be valued and well cared for, so I was able to acquire the wonderful old guitar.  I have spent a good number of hours over the last few days, cleaning and laboring on the necessary upkeep which has been lacking over the last few years.  Late last night, I put the finishing touches on the instrument as I installed new strings and then I tweaked the harmonics as it came into tune.  For all of its battle scars, it is a beautiful instrument, sure to be a desirable addition to some happy guitar player’s collection.

It has what I frequently describe as good, honest wear.  The edges of the body are battered and scraped.  In a place or two, it appears to have been dragged over the concrete floor.  On the top, I would almost attest that I can see the mark of a shoe, where someone has walked on the guitar as they moved across the room.  It is dinged and scratched, and the neck is worn bare of finish where many hands have rubbed it again and again up and down the scale.  The fingerboard is cupped and worn from hours and hours of the strings being squeezed down to its surface.  It is a beautiful sight to see, as it hangs on the wall.

As I considered my young friend’s response to the realization that this instrument was indeed one due his respect and admiration, my thoughts were drawn inexorably to another guitar I have hanging on the wall in my store.  It too, is a beautiful instrument, worthy to be played by most any musician.  The guitar functions quite adequately, with excellent action along the fingerboard, and a good set of pickups, which will emit great volume and pleasing tones.  Still, the reaction which any number of guitarists have shown as they pick up this instrument is far different from my young friend’s show of respect this afternoon.

The guitar is suspended on a wall hanger with perhaps twenty more, much like it.  Yet, it stands out in the crowd.  The others are shiny and new-looking.  The hardware gleams and the colors are undimmed by time, unmarked by clumsy usage.  This guitar though–it shows years of use, the edges scarred, the paint worn thin, apparently by wear from many jam sessions and more than a few times of being dragged in and out of a case.  The eye is drawn to it, as is the hand.  Many have removed it from the shelf, handling it with awe and care.  The respect is only a momentary thing, vanishing in seconds, as if the wind had swept it from the air.  “Oh, it’s just a fake,” is the phrase I have heard over and over with respect to this instrument, still a very fine piece of music equipment.  The disappointment is too great a barrier for anyone to get past, so the instrument hangs there after months on the same hanger.

As great as my discouragement at not being able to sell this guitar, my wonder at the reaction of the customers is greater.  Why, you ask, would one look at this instrument and disrespect it, when the other instrument demands honor and careful handling?  The first guitar, the one with the “honest wear” has earned its place of honor.  Years and usage have gained it the high esteem of one and all, while this second guitar has undertaken to circumvent the whole aging process and fails miserably in the attempt. The “bare” spots are simply places where the finish was never applied to the wood.  The scrapes?  Ditto.  The back of the neck is discolored simply by changing the amount of coloration in the stain which was applied at the factory.  This guitar was actually manufactured to give the appearance of age, a process now known in the business as “relicing” (pronounced rel-ick-ing).  As the genuine players know, this is a fake, a wannabe, attempting to seduce the guitarist to accept a lookalike, instead of working his/her way to the real thing by actually playing the same fine instrument for the years it takes to achieve the good, honest wear.

I have seen many guitars which were given this “relic” treatment by their owners.  They have hit the instruments with chains, scraped them with tools, even dragged them across the sidewalk in an attempt to achieve this look.  If you follow the antique trade at all, you will know that many buyers have been fooled by new items made to appear old by similar artifices.  The experts always tell customers to look for the user wear, not for the peripheral wear.  I tell my customers to do the same.  If there is a lot of wear on the edges, do the frets show playing wear?  Do the marks match the actual playing position of the instrument?  If the evidence of age is only around the edges, but not in the places that actually are touched when the guitar is being played, it is likely the work of a charlatan.

Are you fooled by the fakes in your world?  I have been…more than once.  In fact, I will readily admit that, at times, I fear that those close to me will discover that I am just such a fake.  For many years, I dreaded the time when the Lovely Lady discovered that I really wasn’t a knight in shining armor after all.  I now fear that she may have already discovered it, but am encouraged that she hasn’t acted on her knowledge.  I worry that the people in my church will discover that I have secret sins and habits which would disappoint them beyond imagination.  I fear that you will realize that I don’t live up to my little morality lessons again and again.  I don’t know about you, but I do the best I can to give the appearance of respectability in the attempt to bolster the facade I’ve built.  From a distance, I think I’ve succeeded.  But, take me down off the wall and get a feel for who I really am and…well, let’s just say it won’t be pretty.

The lesson here is twofold.  I am encouraged to leave off defrauding those around me, to come clean and show who I really am.  If all of us could do that, the astonishment might overcome us initially, but we would all be better off to know that each of us suffers from the curse of being a sinner.  We might be more caring, more patient, even more helpful to each other.  You never know. 

The second part of the lesson is for us to be careful of what we accept as honorable.  In the business world, we have a saying.  “Buyer, beware!”  Don’t be fooled by a little wear on the edges, a scrape or two across the surface.  Honesty goes to the heart.  Respect and honor are earned, not manufactured.  Esteem and trust don’t belong to the newcomer, the upstart, but to the veteran who has toiled and paid his dues.  The rookie will have time to prove his mettle, soon enough.

Mr. Peabody, an old instrument repairman I know, used to have a sign in his shop that sums it up for me…“Good Work Takes Time.” 

It might be a wise thing to remember that the next time someone offers you a vintage guitar.

Buyer, beware!

“It is easily overlooked that what is now called vintage was once brand new.”

(Tony Visconti~American record producer)

“Rise in the presence of the aged; show respect for the elderly.”

(Leviticus 19:32)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.

Normal Like Me

October 1979.  The opportunity to be in the audience to hear a fairly new star in the classical music universe could not be passed up.  The pianist had won numerous awards and was touted as “one of the premiere concert pianists in the world.”  We arrived early and found good seats near the front and in the center of the fine arts auditorium.  Both the Lovely Lady and I are pianists (she has earned the title; I have purloined it) and were excited to have the chance to hear this fine artist.

The orchestra, mediocre but ambitious, began the evening with a piece or two before the soloist made his entrance.  We were impatient to hear the headliner, but tolerated the wait.  And, before we could become too impatient, the man himself was on stage.  The long tails and black tie which seem to be required dress for such occasions were present, the flipping back of said tails observed ceremonially as he sat, and we prepared to be dazzled.

Photo by oldpianomusic

I must admit at this point that I have no remembrance of any of the pieces which were played.  I suppose they were well executed.  As we left the auditorium later, the words being tossed around were “stellar” and “remarkable”.  I couldn’t tell you.  I really don’t know how well the man played in that concert.  You see, shortly after the music began, I started hearing buzzing and humming noises, similar to what a child might make or what you might hear from a kazoo if the person were careful to be very quiet.  I looked around.  No one in the audience nearby seemed to be making the noise.  I wondered if one of the instruments in the orchestra could be malfunctioning, so I scanned the stage, just in case.  There was no tell-tale activity to indicate such a problem.  Perhaps the piano itself had something loose.  As I looked at the instrument more closely, I suddenly discovered the source of the irritating noise.

The pianist himself was making the noises with his mouth as he played!  The rhythmic sounds started and stopped as he pursed his lips and buzzed or opened them and hummed.  It was not loud, but noticeable; to me at least.  For the remainder of the program, I was alternately amused and annoyed with the sound effects.  Whichever, it was all I remember from the entire concert.  The great man made noises with his mouth!  What an oddball!

I was talking with my horn teacher a few days later and he, knowing that I had attended the concert, asked about it.  I immediately launched into a tirade about the strange man and his vocal accompaniment to his own piano playing.  After a moment or two, he stopped me and asked a pointed question.  “How was the music?”  I replied that I guessed it was okay, but that I hadn’t really paid much attention.  My friend was confused.  “What did you go to the concert for?”  I replied, defensively,  “To hear him play the piano.”  His next three words turned on a light for me.  “Did he play?”

Why hadn’t I listened to the piano?  It was much louder than the peripheral noises.  I’m told that it was amazing.  I wouldn’t know.  I went to hear Emanuel Ax in concert and I didn’t listen to his music!

Why do we center our attention on the negative?  How could I have missed the music and only heard the static?  I am struck that this is fairly often the human condition.  A lifetime of good is accomplished and we find a single bothersome issue to remember.  Tremendous success is achieved and we complain that it could have been better.  All around are examples of people doing what they should and we want to discuss the one idiot who chooses to be stupid.  You would think that with such tunnel vision, eventually we would center in on the good, but our lens doesn’t seem to focus well unless we are gazing at the bad.

For some reason, my mind is drawn to another piano concert I attended just a few years ago.  The pianist came to our church and performed on the poor quality piano we had on our stage at that time.  During the performance, one of the keys actually broke in two.  He kept playing, avoiding the damaged key.  I never once heard the unresponsive “thump” that his finger hitting that key again would have made.  The music was undiminished because of the missing note.  And later during his performance, at one point all the dampers in the bass section of the piano stuck, causing all those notes to ring incessantly.  Nonplussed, he skillfully finished the piece and, standing to acknowledge the applause, surreptitiously reached down near the tuning pins and, with a tiny motion, eased the dampers back down into place on the strings.

Afterward, I apologized to him for the poor quality of the piano.  He didn’t want to hear any apology, but graciously related the story of an occasion when, in a very poor village in a developing country, they had an ancient piano for him to play, but no bench for him to sit upon.  He was honored to perform the concert there while seated on a tree stump.  This man undoubtedly understands why he was put here.  He has the rare gift to be able to make beautiful music and the privilege of performing that music for people from all walks of life.  He isn’t going to let an insignificant problem like a broken piano key or a missing bench stop the music from being heard.

When we focus on the important things, we reap amazing benefits.  Let our eye be drawn away to the nonessentials and we lose sight completely, of why we came.

Alas, I missed the opportunity of a lifetime, because a man I thought would be bigger than life and twice as debonair, was actually kind of normal, like me.  I won’t make the same mistake again.

I hope.

 

 

 

“…whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.”

(Philippians 4:8b~NIV)

 

 

“The only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well.”

(Alfred Adler~Austrian psychiatrist~1870-1937)

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.

You Say Hello

He just turned eighty-two last week.  I called to wish him a happy birthday and to check in.  Maybe it’s because change happens gradually, but to me, he doesn’t sound any different than he did when I called him thirty years ago on his fifty-second birthday.  With a couple of changes, it could have been the same conversation.  He is busy with his preaching duties, visiting parishioners in the hospital, just done with a city-wide meeting in which he participated.  I tell him that the little girl is doing great, and growing fast.  Thirty years ago, it was a different ministry for him.  Then the girl was my own child, now she is one of my grandchildren.  Time marches on.

The thing that catches my attention is his mention of death.  I want to put it down to his advancing years, his realization that the count of years in front of him are narrowing, while those behind are wide.  But suddenly, I think about our conversation thirty years ago and remember that we spoke of death then also.  He had laughed about his doctors and their pronunciation of a death sentence a few years prior, when he was in his late forties.  “They gave me three years at the outside.  I guess there is still a little more for me to do.”  Then, he was pleased to have fooled the medical minds for five years.  At eighty-two, he is still chuckling, realizing that he has now outlasted their predictions by some thirty-five years.  But there is a different, almost somber, note that tempers his light-hearted comments.  The knowledge that “it is appointed to a man once to die” is a sobering thing to an old man.  He is ready, but not anxious for the event.  “I think there may still be a little more to do, even now,” he reminds me before our conversation turns to other matters.

I have begun to realize, perhaps a little tardily you may think, that all of life is a series of goodbyes.  My young friend, Andrew and I spoke of that yesterday, as he worked on a guitar in the music store.  He is suddenly becoming aware that being a senior in high school means that many relationships which have been life-long will be coming to an abrupt end soon.  He is wise beyond his years.  At his age, I never gave it a second thought…couldn’t get done with school quickly enough.  It wasn’t until many years later that it hit me;  I haven’t seen most of my friends, the people who had been my whole life up to that point, since the day I walked across the platform to receive my diploma.  The separation was instantaneous and unqualified.  My young friend is aware of that coming reality and the prospect saddens him.  I remind him that such is life, and that new friends will be made all through its years.  He is not encouraged.

You see, we begin saying goodbye the day we are born.  At no time in our lives will we be so dependent, so completely wrapped up in our need of people.  But, each new milestone–rolling over, crawling, walking, eating with utensils–every achievement without exception, leads to independence, but it also leads inexorably and unfailingly to that time when we fly from the nest, declaring our emancipation and saying “Goodbye.”  In some ways, as children, we can’t wait for the day.  As parents, we dread the day, almost as much as we exult in it.  The goal is achieved!  The tiny baby, completely dependent on us for every single need to be satisfied, has, both physically and emotionally, achieved the stature which was intended, and for which we labored.  The goodbyes are unbelievably sad, but the satisfaction of completing our task is immensely gratifying.

In all of our relationships, we understand that the day will come when we either say goodby mutually, or one of us is left behind to say it.  It would be such a depressing subject, but for what follows the goodbye.  If you have left one place for another before, you will understand.  The feeling of loss is quickly replaced by the excitement of discovery as new friends are made, new places are revealed, and new memories begin to pile up behind us once more.

“Goodbye” simply means that “Hello” is on the horizon!

I remember hearing the quote in “The Sound Of Music” that when the Lord closes a door, somewhere He opens a window, and I used to think that it was thin comfort.  That said, life’s experiences have shown that it is true, and not maudlin at all, but immensely comforting to know that happiness follows sorrow.  We move forward in expectation of what lies ahead.  Our hearts may yearn for what has past, but reality demands that we push ahead.

Death is simply another “Goodbye” in the grand scheme of things.  For the believer, it is a step into the eternity which holds no fear, but only the prospect of new “Hellos”.  Is there sadness?  Obviously.  Even our Savior felt sorrow at the death of his friend, Lazarus.  But, we are confident that, like the other goodbyes we have said, hello will come again.  What a great hope!  I’m not anxious for the day when the “Goodbye” I say to my father is the last one we’ll say here.  But, it is what he has been laboring for all of these years.  How would I want to keep him from that?

It does seem that goodbye has come to be such an abrupt, almost ugly, word.  Maybe we should add two words to it, two simple words, but they give a sense of promise and of hope.

Goodbye, for now.

“Death has been swallowed up in Victory!”

(I Corinthians 15:54B)

God be with you till we meet again;
By His counsels guide, uphold you,
With His sheep securely fold you;
God be with you till we meet again.

Till we meet, till we meet,
Till we meet at Jesus’ feet;
Till we meet, till we meet,
God be with you till we meet again.

(Jeremiah Rankin~American pastor & songwriter~1828-1904)

“Why can’t we get all the people together in the world that we really like and then just stay together? I guess that wouldn’t work. Someone would leave. Someone always leaves. Then we would have to say good-bye. I hate good-byes. I know what I need. I need more hellos.”

(Snoopy~created by Charles Schulz~American cartoonist~1922-2000)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.

The High Cost Of Perfection

“It’s a good bike, Paul, but I just found another one I wanted.  You can have it for fifty dollars if you’re interested.”  My friend, the instrument tech was standing in his shop apron, pointing back toward the back of his repair area.  The bicycle was, indeed, a good looking piece of machinery, with its alloy wheels and gleaming twenty-one speed shifter.  I was used to the department store models, which needed to be hammered on and tweaked every time they were dragged out to be ridden, so this beauty was definitely going home with me!

As we talked, I learned that he was purchasing a road bike which was going to cost him over a thousand dollars.  One Thousand Dollars!  For a bicycle!  Anyone knows that ninety-nine bucks will buy you a bike at Walmart!  I shook my head, but I dug in my pocket for the fifty dollars and rolled my new bicycle out the door.  It is still the one I ride today, eight or nine years later.  My friend, the instrument tech is on his third since then.  I had given up trying to understand him.  Until a week ago.

Photo by IrishFireside
(www.irishfireside.com)

Last week, my friend, the computer geek…I mean, the web designer, rolled up to my door (actually through it) to spend some time dreaming up new ideas for the website that the Lovely Lady and I maintain for our business.  After an hour or so, he got up to leave and I commented on the beautiful machine he had left standing just inside the door as he arrived.  He explained some of the desirable features of the bike and I commented that it must have been rather costly.  He, reluctantly, and not bragging at all, told me about the cost and benefits of some of the components.  Wheels…four hundred dollars apiece.  Seat…three hundred dollars.  Frame…almost two thousand dollars.  Seriously!

I was mentally adding up the costs in my head as he spoke.  And, wondering if I’m paying him too much for his expertise.  No.  I know better than that.  He definitely earns his pay for the work he performs for my business.  But, I was puzzled.  I still am.

As the Lovely Lady and I rode in the car toward a nearby city tonight, I asked her the question that has been bugging me since that conversation and maybe, since my friend, the instrument tech told me what his bicycle was costing him.  I assume that these men ride for the same reason I do–to exercise and keep the body in condition.  The purpose for every part of the bike that my friend, the web designer, described to me is to lighten the overall weight of the equipment, making it easier to climb hills and go long distances.  I can’t, for the life of me, understand why you would take part in an activity with the goal of getting exercise and then spend incredible amounts of cash to make the exercise less effective!  The Lovely Lady laughed at my analysis, but I still can’t quite wrap my mind around the issue.

I see it every day.  Amateur guitarists, players with minimal skill in the art of arpeggios, or fingerpicking, or even basic chording, feel the need to spend thousands of dollars on professional instruments; instruments with potential that far exceeds any their new owners could hope to live up to.  For many of these folks, a three hundred dollar entry-level instrument would be all they ever have need of.  That, and many hours of practice time.

Men (and sometimes women) who have taken up the game of golf (if it can be called a game), spend thousands on clubs that will never, ever take away their propensity to slice a drive from the tee.  Amazing quantities of cash are wasted on equipment which will sit in closets, as their owners recognize the sad fact that no amount of overpriced gadgetry will ever enable them to play like Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, or Brittany Lincicome.  Those champions got where they are by discipline and hour upon hour of practice.  Of course, they use the pricy equipment, but their hard work got them to the point that the fancy clubs do them any good, not the other way around.

Are you getting the picture?  I realize that much of what had been written here is an oversimplification of reality; bicycle riders ride for the enjoyment and the better the machine, the less there is to annoy.  An expensive guitar plays with less discomfort than a cheap one and will at the least, be easier to learn on.  I’m not a golfer (I even lose at mini-golf to the Lovely Lady with regularity), but I can see that better clubs lessen the chance of errant drives and chip shots.

What I’m arguing for tonight is perspective.  Understanding that our goals cannot be bought will bring us to the goal that much quicker.  The wisdom that comes with discipline leads to excellence.  Mr Tolkien reminds us in his quirky way that, “Short cuts make long delays.”  Indeed, I have never seen a professional musician who rose to prominence by using the “Think Method” advocated by Professor Hill in the musical “The Music Man”.  Fame and recognition comes, not to the rich hobbyist, but to the serious student of his chosen craft, and then only after years of dedication and hard work (and disappointments), and a good bit of tenacity.

Keep your eye on the goal.  Don’t make excuses.  Bad equipment is the least of the problems you will encounter on the journey.  Keep moving!

Oh!  A two thousand dollar guitar which sits in the case, without being practiced on, will never ever play the Grand Ole Opry.  That three thousand dollar bicycle sitting in the garage won’t ever get you to the Tour De France if you don’t get on it and ride every day.

The concert pianist, Arthur Rubinstein, the story goes, was asked in the streets of New York how one could get to Carnegie Hall.  Fictitious as the story may be, His reputed answer hits the nail on the head for us tonight.   

“Practice, practice, practice.”

“All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.”

(Proverbs 14:23~NIV)

“Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire.  Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.”

(Martha Graham~American choreographer and dance teacher~1894-1991)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.

Crystal Clear

“You can take pictures of the wishing well if you want.”  The thin lady simpered proudly, as if she had just given me permission to view the Crown Jewels.  Moments earlier, we had entered her domain, stepping across a worn and scraped-up threshold into the dimly lit interior of the shabby building.  The ancient wood floor was bereft of finish, with most of the rough boards popped loose from their original, tightly-fitting, positions.  The surface flexed as we stepped into the only room and continued flexing as we walked gingerly, causing our minds to leap quickly back to the signs outside declaring that the owner was “Not responsible for accidents”.  Perhaps they were fearful that the floor would collapse beneath our weight and wanted us to be forewarned that there would be no compensation forthcoming.  We were already aware of that last part, simply by seeing the condition of the establishment.

We had sped down the highway past the place, headed for home from a weekend of tourist-y activities, a relaxing time away from the hectic pace that our lives seem to have attained recently.  The dilapidated sign outside spoke of treasures within and we could not resist the tumbledown shack, turning back to see if there were, indeed valuables awaiting us.  Another faded sign informed us that the “famous” crystal wishing well was located here.  We went in, but besides finding a frowning and suspicious business owner, found none of the normal items we expected to see.  There were no antiques, no housewares from ages past, not even any glassware from the depression era to tempt the foolish investor (a title I will vociferously deny, ignoring the collection hidden in my closet).  Old records–you know, those black things that once rotated atop our stereos and blasted forth our music, when the scratched places weren’t holding the needle in place, causing it to play the same phrase again and again–were scattered on what passed for display tables.  We saw other miscellaneous items around the room, but there was absolutely nothing that I would have paid more than a few cents for at any garage sale.  I was ready to leave as quickly as my eyes swept the room.

But the lady had warmed up a bit and wanted us to know all about the old place.  A famous gangster was reputed to have had a shady business upstairs at one time.  I didn’t want to see, fearful as I was of the thought of walking on the floor downstairs, much less of being on the floor above that.  She didn’t offer us the chance.  She did insist that we view the “crystal” wishing well, merely a rocked-in grotto with murky water almost to the floor level, at the very back of the room.  “There’s a fish in there,” she announced proudly.  We didn’t see the fish.  It didn’t seem smart to throw any coins in the “well” if there was a chance that the fish might be harmed, but she thought that we would certainly want to photograph the well.  I reluctantly took the picture and was ready to be away from the depressing place.

The Lovely Lady, by my side, had noticed some items in a dingy counter nearby.  By now, the woman was eager to describe her treasures, pieces of crystal which she had adorned herself with copper wire and beads.  “They’re so full of energy and inner beauty!”  I couldn’t help but think that the opposite was true of the emaciated woman, herself almost lethargic and depressed.  Like a flash in the darkened room, a thought occurred to me, and suddenly I understood that we were being offered a rare opportunity.  The whole weekend, we had been consumers, obsessed with our own comfort, our own needs.  The folks offering what we needed were just there to accommodate us and our every whim. This lady, on the other hand, needed us.  She didn’t just need our money, she needed us to recognize her for who she was–a fellow human being, with a longing for respect and acceptance.  I looked around and saw the room with different eyes.  She was doing what she could to provide for herself and her family, and what was in this room was the result of her efforts.  The hand painted signs, the crude “wishing well”, the fish she cared for in the murky water, the decoration on the crystals she was offering, those were all her handiwork, her labor.

My attitude adjustment complete, I inquired if we might purchase one of her crystals.  She brightened up and a little of the energy and beauty that she sees in the crystal suddenly seemed to be present inside her.  We talked for awhile longer and she invited us to visit the cave up on the hill, which we did.  It too, was underwhelming by most standards, but it was hers and she was proud of it.  Our admiration cost us nothing at all, but was of great benefit to the young lady.  When we drove away just moments later, the broad smile on her face along with her invitation for us to return, were genuine.  The sour, suspicious person who had greeted us was gone…all because we recognized her as a person worthy of our esteem.

Miles down the road, as we approached a bridge across one of the many rivers in that area, the Lovely Lady wondered what it would look like from the river’s edge.  It may be a different concept to you, but we are, as I have mentioned before, lovers of bridges.  Many are actually works of art, albeit placed conveniently for us to cross over previously impassable barriers–valleys, rivers, or even deep chasms.  I found the access road and we again turned off the highway.

What a refreshing break!  Moments after the pavement was left behind, we were walking a dirt pathway beside the river, down into a washout and up the other side, butterflies and dragonflies flitting around us.  Then suddenly, as we approached the river’s verge, looking through an opening in the trees, there it stood!  The concrete arches soared into the air, supporting the roadway above with grace and with style.  Invisible from the road itself, the beautiful old structure provided ease for the travelers who sped past, unawares.  An unattractive road and a railing, it was to those who never took time to see what lay underneath.  A beautifully designed piece of art and a labor of untold value was what we saw from our lowly vantage point.  All because we had taken the time to leave the beaten path and spend a few moments in appreciation of what we couldn’t have seen before.

For some reason, once again, I feel the need to leave you to work out the details of this one for yourself.  I could tell you what to think, could wax eloquent about the parallels and the relationships between the two events, but my bet is that you don’t need me to do that.  I’m going to trust you to finish the job before you move on to other pursuits.  You won’t disappoint me, now will you?

We visited the Crater of Diamonds park a day or two ago and as I stood in that field, I found myself thinking about the old song, “I’m just an old chunk of coal, but I’m going to be a diamond someday.”  I’m starting to believe that perhaps it simply depends on your viewpoint.  A lot of those chunks we think are still only made of coal are already well on their way to becoming diamonds.  You just have to know where to look.

You’ll be better at finding them than I was, I’m sure.

“He has made everything beautiful in its own time.  He has also set eternity in the hearts of man.”
(Ecclesiastes 3:11a~NIV)

“And many a man with life out of tune
All battered and scarred with sin
Is auctioned cheap to a thoughtless crowd
Much like that old violin

But the Master comes,
And the foolish crowd never can quite understand,
The worth of a soul and the change that is wrought
By the Touch of the Masters’ Hand”
(Myra Brooks Welch~American poet~1877-1959)

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.

One Of The Least

It was nearing the end of the month, the time when the shopkeepers who had a “Buy, Sell, Trade” sign in their windows thought seriously about covering up the “Buy” part of the message.  After years of being in business, you begin to understand the ebb and flow of sales and acquisitions.  With the beginning of the new month, government checks securely deposited in the bank, the folks who depend on the generosity of their fellow citizens for their sustenance are free with cash.  Purchases are made, promised paybacks are taken care of and for a few weeks they will have tools and furniture and musical instruments.  For a few weeks.

 

As the month runs out, so, often, does the money.  Reacquiring their treasures costs more than actually buying them once and keeping them, but the cycle has been set into motion and will never stop.  They are trapped.  I’m not sure how the economical “safety net” worked in our Savior’s day, but even then, He spoke of the poor who are always with us.  The store proprietor in our tale understands that, even wondering sometimes if some of those “always with us” poor are assigned to one particular individual who will be their benefactor for years at a time.

 

The man who stood before him the other day was one such person.  Thirty-five years ago, they had begun their relationship with the same type of transaction as was being suggested now.  “I know it’s a little ratty, but if you’ll give me forty dollars for it, I’ll come and buy it back next month if it’s still here.”  The item in question is not merely in ratty condition; it is trashed.  Good for nothing except salvage, there is no investment value in it at all.  “Sorry,” comes the answer.  “There are already too many of those waiting to be parted out in the back room.”  The man looked at him with surprise.  A refusal?  This one was always a “soft touch”, not difficult like the pawnbrokers.  The store owner shook his head again and turned away.

 

Ten minutes later, the man was back.  Something in his manner was different.  “I really have to have some gas for my car.  I know you don’t want this thing, but is it worth fifteen dollars to you?  I don’t know what else to do.”  The businessman realized that this wasn’t a business proposition, it was a broken man needing help.  With a wink, he said, “Why don’t you keep it and I’ll just get you a little cash.  Between friends, right?”  It was a cinch that the item would be in the pawn shop by the end of the day anyway, but it didn’t matter.  With the plea from the man, the proprietor had also heard other words of the Savior, as He had said, “As much as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me,” and he realized that the opportunity had almost passed him by.

 

A friend of mine posted a picture online the other day that grabbed my attention and my heart.  The “shoes” on the feet of the man (or woman) in the photo were actually empty plastic bottles, flattened and laced with a twisted leather strap to make them into a thong of sorts.  The hopelessness of the person’s poverty needed no face.  Ten weathered and beaten toes, sitting on top of two pieces of “trash” said more than any words, any sad, empty eyes in a face could convey.  I was struck by the responses of others to the photo.  Most reacted with horror and compassion.  The one that impacted me the most though, was a man who angrily demanded to know what the shoe companies of the world were doing to take care of the problem, assuming that they had millions of dollars of ill-gotten profits at their disposal and asserting that it was their mess to clean up.  I am more saddened by his response than I am by the photo.

 

It is the response of many in our society…the “not my fault” argument.  His words said, “I feel bad for this person, but it is someone else’s responsibility to help–someone with a lot more money–someone who owes more to the poor than I.”  Where his argument falls down is that the latter part belies the former.  If it is not his responsibility, he doesn’t really feel bad for the person.  If we will not act to obey our consciences, they are of little use to us.  In a culture where the expectation is that an institution will shoulder the burden that should rightfully be our own, true charity is not present.  The “you” that the Teacher laid the burden on is not some nameless corporation, nor even a government bureaucracy, but the onus is laid squarely on the person being addressed.  I. Am. Responsible.

 

Once again, the preacher inside is begging to stand at the pulpit and pound it a bit, but he’s had enough time to get his message across.  The application will have to come in the hearts and minds of the readers.  Can I leave that task with you? 

 

We’ll all hope that at the end of next month, that shop keeper is better prepared and a little more aware of what is expected of him.  Perhaps, we’ll all be a little more ready to do our part. 

 

We won’t be doing it just for the one to whom we hand the cup of cool water.

 

 

 

 

 

“Come unto me, all you who are weary and heavily burdened and I will give you rest for your souls.”

(Matthew 11:28)

 

 

 

“The life of a man consists not in seeing visions and in dreaming dreams, but in active charity and in willing service.”

(Henry Wadsworth Longfellow~American poet and essayist~1807-1882)

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.

Substance or Shadow?

Art carried the fifty-year old guitar case in and set it down on the counter yesterday.  I am an enthusiast of many instruments, but my heart always beats a little faster when I see the old brown Fender guitar cases.  If what is inside is a match to the case, this is an instrument which was built in the heyday of some of the finest and most well received guitars of any era.  They also happen to be some of the most valuable on the market today, but that is secondary to the enjoyment of holding and playing one of these historical artifacts.

 

We discussed the instrument’s features at length and verbally dissected its condition, fair for its age, but still intact, with all the original parts present, give or take a screw or two.  I even had the honor of being the first person to ever remove the neck from the body to confirm the age indicated by the serial number.  The guitar is exactly fifty years old this month!  Its value is not extraordinary, because it is a less desirable model than some, but it still has significant value.  I was privileged to spend some time with the fine old instrument.  Art, Chris (another lover of fine instruments who was present), and I stood for more than a few moments in conversation.

 

Art spoke to us of where the instrument had spent most of its life.  He talked of Kenya, in Africa, and the desperate need there in the seventies and eighties for musical instruments of any kind.  We learned of the program which provided many guitars to the native churches and also learned of a few instruments which were destined to be used in recordings he was instrumental in making while in Africa.  This guitar made the trip with him over thirty years ago and had been left there when he and his wife returned to the United States a number of years after that.  The guitar itself has just returned in the last few days from its sojourn in Africa.  Ah!  If the old instrument could only speak instead of simply playing notes!  What a story it could tell…

 

Intrigued by the thought of instruments from the States being exported to a country like Kenya, so rich in its own musical heritage and indigenous instruments, someone inquired about the circumstances that instigated the journey.  We were regaled by the story-teller for a few moments as the truth came out.  I was (and am) stunned.

 

It seems that, as the early missionaries to the “dark continent” won their first converts, they insisted that they forsake their native melodies and rhythms.  In the place of these, the missionaries substituted the traditional hymns of the western churches, translating the words into the native languages to be sure, but still forcing a completely alien style of music on the new believers.  Instead of songs laid out in the “call and response” style familiar to them, the odd sounding four-part harmonies of the western choral style were substituted.  No other type of music was acceptable in the church, nor even in the private worship of the natives.  Worse was still to come.  The teachers banned the native instruments, including the stringed melody-producing ones.  Drums were out completely.  The rationale was that the items had been used in the demon-inspired ceremonies before conversion occurred, so the people must never touch them again.  In many cases, the converts were forced to burn the instruments in a symbolic act of leaving behind their old lives.

 

How sad.  I will not malign these well-meaning missionaries, with lofty goals for the flock that had been given to them.  They believed they were doing the right thing.  It was never their intention to deprive the people of something that was good, but to protect from evil. That’s just not the way it worked out.

 

Art and his fellow workers understood that the people needed something which spoke to them in a more personal and familiar way than the recycled Western hymnal, so guitars were made available to the natives and they were encouraged to write songs in the native style, but with words which drew their hearts into worship.  The first few men took a few days to get familiar with the instruments and then the race was on!  Everyone wanted guitars.  The demand far outstripped the supply and it was all Art and crew could do the keep a supply coming.  When guitar strings broke, anything that would sound a tone was fair game.  The musicians would appropriate brake cables from old cars and motorbikes and, peeling off the outer wrappings, would employ the core wire for a string.  When the mechanical tuning machines broke, a wooden peg was inserted up through the hole, violin style, to bring the instruments up to pitch.  It was a wonder to behold!  The music was theirs again!

 

The final chapter was of the conference he attended, when several thousand men, women, and children were gathered to share worship.  Several different people had played and sung, with the crowd remaining engaged and somewhat noisy.  Then the old man stepped on the platform, with a simple, single-stringed instrument.  A hush came over the crowd as they sat and listened with rapt attention.  Not a sound was heard except for the playing of the instrument and the voice of the singer.  When it was over, the crowd let out a collective sigh, almost as if they had been holding their breath for the whole song.  “What happened?” queried Art to some of his Kenyan friends.  The only explanation they would give was to reveal that this instrument, above all others, had been labeled as “demonic” for most of a century and it was only now that they could hear songs of the Savior they loved, played on an instrument which they had longed to be able to hear for most of their life spans.  What an emotionally moving experience for them to sit and take in the joyful sounds.

 

The parallels to our current day experiences take my breath away.  But, I have filled enough of the white space on this page for tonight, so I will not waste your time in pointing out the obvious.  You may be able to fill in the blanks yourselves, if you will.  Just a little shove in the right direction and you’re on your own…Intolerance of generational differences in styles has plagued and sidetracked us for eons, when the better focus might be on the substance itself.  

 

Perhaps, it is time to take the view of each other that our Creator takes of us.  The outer trappings are nonessential; the heart though–that bears just a little more consideration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Lord does not look at the things man looks at.  Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

(I Samuel 16:7 NIV)

 

“Beware that you do not lose the substance by grasping at the shadow.”

(Aesop~Ancient Greek author of fables~620 BC-560 BC)

 

 

 

© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012 All Rights Reserved.