The Worst Job, Temporarily

 

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My parents always had to work jobs in high school, so they missed out on the many common high school activities that are normally associated with the typical, American, high school experience. They made the most out of it with each other, marrying instead of graduating and starting a family a few years later.

They wanted my sister and me to have a different high school experience. As long as we were involved in school activities and earning good grades, we didn’t have to get jobs. Thus high school, for me, was some of the best years of my life, full of new experiences, unfamiliar adventures, and social challenges.

The summer after I graduated high school, my parents informed me that it was time to get a job. And when you’re an 18-year-old with no previous job experience and no employment connections, you don’t get to be picky.

I spent the early days of my summer as a high school graduate driving around in the increasing heat in a long sleeve dress shirt and tie, dropping off resumes at any and every place that looked tolerable.

I recalled my nanny and papa telling me how my dad used to make the best pizzas when he was a teenager working at a pizza parlor when dating my mom. He would bring them over on the nights he closed after loading up the pizzas with the best combination of cheese and toppings.

I can still hear my nanny say, “Best pizza I ever ate!” as she sat on his couch reminiscing back to the past as my papa nodded in agreement.

Following in my father’s footsteps, I drove to a pizza parlor near my house. After introducing myself to the manager and asking about employment, I was turned away with the common “We’re not hiring right now.”

After a few days of more rejections all around town, I decided to go back to the pizza parlor again to ask if they were hiring now. This time the manager said, “We’re not hiring right now but maybe later.”

A few more days went by with no luck on my job hunt, so I went back to the pizza parlor again. This time the manager asked, “Why do you want to work here so bad?”

I explained I thought it would be a neat job. And that’s how I got my first job. Or that’s how I got the worst job I ever had in my life.

I learned quickly that my dreamy idea of making pizzas while cracking innocent jokes with a new community of friendly faces was far from reality.

I was the joke.

The workers there were not what I would describe as people of high character, and I didn’t belong.

And they knew it.

And they wanted to make sure I knew it.

I seldom heard my name without profanity attached to it, and I was yelled at for questioning their disagreeable procedures, such as making salads with their bare hands directly after handling money and crushing the ice down with their foot when too much was placed into the soft drink ice machine tray. One of their favorite moments was when some kids set off a cherry bomb in the toilet, and they laughed hysterically as they watched me mop off the filth from the walls and ceiling.

The real humbling moment was when I saw my high school ex-girlfriend walk in holding hands with one of my old friends. I had heard that they were dating, but the moment of humility was when they saw me and uncontrollability let out a slight laugh of shock. My post high school life looked dim and lame as I stood there in a cheaply printed pizza parlor t-shirt with one of my managers staring down at me from the oven, looking for a reason to criticize me. When they had finished eating their pizza, my manager quickly yelled at me to clean up their mess as they were still walking out the door.

Now you might think one of the advantages of working at a pizza parlor would be getting free pizza every now and then. Not for me. I was allowed to buy pizza at a small discount, and when making minimum wage, I wasn’t about to spend an hour and a half of my wages on a pizza. During hungry evenings there was a real temptation to sneak a bite from unfinished pizzas left on tables. Being a rule follower, I would throw away half eaten pizzas that were still warm from the oven and leave work hungry.

It wasn’t long until I found a better job working at the bookstore on my university’s campus, which really was a breath of fresh air. My managers there appreciated my hard work and even rewarded it by increasing my responsibilities. I made friends there and got to meet many of the university’s professors before classes began. Plus, I enjoy books far more than pizza.

Eventually, the fall came, and a very special moment of my life happened.

I arrived on my university’s campus to be early on that first day of college, and as I stepped onto the white sidewalk and strolled over freshly cut green grass still wet from the morning’s dew, I took in a deep breath and exhaled in victory knowing that I had made it farther than anyone in my family.

I was a university student.

I was going to be the first in my entire family to graduate college.

And I did, and now I have a wonderful job.

The worst job was only temporary. And that’s something to remember when God has us walk through the valleys in lifeor through the pizza parlors.

It’s only temporary.

Even the good career I have now is only temporary.

It’s all only temporary.

This is why our focus should not be on what can be seen around us, for all of this is only temporary. Our focus should be on the things that are not seen, for those things are eternal.

 

Underarm Deodorant

Old Woman

Not everyone is lucky enough to know their great-grandmother, but I was. Grandma Patterson is what we called her. From Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl, she and my great-grandfather brought their many children over to California for a better life. She spent her time working in the laborious fields and raising her 10 children.

When I knew her, she was already old. She wore her hair pulled back tightly into a brown bun that rested on the back of her head. She mostly wore long straight dresses that hung like giant t-shirts. She was overweight some, and she hunched over when she walked.

And her eye vision was failing.

Back then, people didn’t always wear sunglasses when working outside in the fields, and a lifetime of abuse from the unforgiving sun did a number on my Grandma Patterson.

When I was in the sixth grade, I was chubby with an acne covered face and a mouth full of metal. My undiagnosed OCD caused me to slick my hair straight down with a perfect part so not a single hair would ever dare go out of place. I was extremely shy, awkward, and my best friends went by the names of Nintendo and Sega. Needless to say, I didn’t have girls chasing after me, and I didn’t blame them.

For Christmas that year, I remember unwrapping a Christmas present from Grandma Patterson. I think it was the last one I ever remember receiving from her. It was a green bottle of spray deodorant.

Yes, underarm deodorant.

I opened it up not knowing how to react. I was still at the young age when body odor didn’t exist, but I didn’t want to be rude, so I forced out a “Thank you!” with a decent smile.

My great-grandma stood up and walked over to me hunched over. She leaned in close to me and said, “You spray a little of that here and there, and you’ll have to fight those little girlies off of you.” She motioned like she was spraying it on both sides of my neck.

It then made sense to me and my observing parents that my Grandma Patterson thought she bought me spray cologne. Like I said earlier, her eyesight was failing.

Not too long later, I visited her with my family, and she said to me, “Terry, I bet all those little girlies are after you now, aren’t they?”

I answered awkwardly, “I don’t know.”

She continued, “Well, this is what you do. You need to get yourself a baseball bat in one hand and a croquet stick in the other, so when the girlies come after you on the right, you can knock them off with the left, and when they come after you on the left, you can knock them off with the right.”

I thought she really must not be able to see the dorky looking kid standing right in front of her; the girls at my school didn’t want anything to do with me.

On our way home that night, I silently chuckled in the backseat of our family minivan. And after thinking about it some more, it was nice to have someone see something in me I didn’t see in myself, even if that person was going blind. It was encouraging that she saw something in me that she thought others would find attractive.

A few years later, my acne cleared up, my braces were taken off, and my hair hung more loosely and naturally as it grew out in a blond, suffer style. I lost weight and spent time outside swimming in my family’s new pool as my skin darkened into a healthy shade. With my newly gained confidence, I traded in my timid shyness for a gregarious, extroverted personality.

And the girlies started to chase after me.

My Grandma Patterson didn’t get to see me graduate high school or college. She didn’t live that long. But she didn’t need to see those events because even with her blind eyes, she saw me—the real me.

I pray to be a little more like her and see others not with my eyes but with something more. I hope to see their future possibilities. I desire to be a builder of people and error on the side of encouragement.

There’s already enough honest evaluation. There’s enough tough love. Even after the silly self-esteem movement in the 1980s and this crazy post-modern society we live in now, we still need people to see in us what isn’t there yet.

We all need a Grandma Patterson who will give us our own underarm deodorant.

 

Driving Home

Foothills surrounded the dry two-lane road that led home.

Oil rigs heavily pumped as some just sat in awe of the red sky as it began to take down some of the warm air with it.

Telephone poles connected together by hanging cords that appeared to move up and down if you watched from lying down in the backseat.

Somewhere on that drive, there was a burned structure of a historic hotel still standing, which was the last evidence that the tiny town had once flourished with people.

But to me as a little boy, it still flourished. Maybe not with people, but with sunsets, nightly stars, pet animals, young friends, old family, trees to climb on, grass to roll on, and time to spare.

Driving home from Taft to my home in Derby Acers, I remember turning my head and looking up to see my dad. He was younger then—not that tired from a hard day’s work in the oilfields.

Paper bags of mixed groceries sat together in the back, and I held a Happy Meal box in my hands, eager to get to the toy Hot Wheel that hid under the warm fries I was so eager to throw into my mouth.

After looking at my dad, I turned back to watch the road like he was. He seemed to keep a safe eye on that road. Or maybe it was that red sky falling over those foothills beyond it he so intently observed.

It’s now that red sky I envision on that road when I think about my childhood.

The sunset and childhood are both so full of wonder and both so fleeing.

Back then, on that road, with my dad, there wasn’t poppy music to occupy the calm silence. There wasn’t handheld video game systems with new levels to conquer. There wasn’t cell phones, texting, or email to communicate with people who weren’t there.

It was just us.

And I called it home.

It’s where my mind meditated. It’s where my imagination grew. It’s where I learned how to be alive.

Often times it’s where I would like to go back. And in a way, maybe I can.

Maybe we can.

Maybe that’s what reconciliation is all about—riding in a car with our father, going where he takes us, and trusting he’s going to get us home.

 

Becoming a Drummer

I was in the 6th grade when I attended my first concert. The 90’s Christian rock band played at small charismatic church my family had just started attending. The archetypal band members took the stage with long hair, bangs, perms, sleeveless shirts, shredded stonewashed jeans, and, of course, eyeliner. Playing at a church with an ethnically diverse congregation where men mostly wore a mixture of K-Mart polos and boxy suits that never fit right, everyone could easily tell who was in the band.

I intently observed the drummer. He played the simple 4/4 rock beat on his wrap around drum set with a double bass drum and a trashcan lid hanging as one of his cymbals.

Awesome. Cool. Sick. Rad. Amazing.

I don’t remember what colloquial adjective came to the forefront of my 6th grade tongue, but you get the point.

His high, exaggerated hits rebounded his big hair uncontrollably, and the wild mess filled in the void of the surrounding half circle drum set.

I think I can do that, I thought.

During the next week, I talked my parents into getting Chinese food because I had an idea in mind.

I went with my dad to pick up the food from the small restaurant next to a grocery store about two miles from our house, and on the way out, I grabbed a handful of chopsticks, even though my family ate Chinese food with forks back then.

When we arrived home, I excitedly wrapped up five chopsticks with electrical tape. I repeated this process until I had a pair of homemade drumsticks in my hands.

But they didn’t work. It only took a short moment for me to see they were obviously far too short, about half the length of a regular drumstick.

Since my idea failed, I did the only other thing I knew to do in order to get a pair of drumsticks; I called my Nanny and Papa.

A few days later, my Papa picked me up in his little, red pick-up and took me to the local music store to buy my first real pair of drumsticks. They were only about eight bucks, but it seriously made my day, probably my week.

I air drummed in my bedroom for a few weeks to the audio tape of the Christian rock band I saw in concert and hit on the back seat of my parent’s minivan whenever I was required to run errands with my mom, but besides for that, the thought of becoming a real drummer was eventually forgotten.

About a year later, I sat in the vast audience in my junior high school’s gym watching the older 8th graders receive their final congratulations before their official ceremony that night.

The school’s marching band performed for the graduates, and the principal gave a motivational speech that fostered excitement for the future high school experience while praising their current accomplishment. Being a 7th grader, I listened but was distracted by a group of teen boys who sat behind the band and were clearly not paying attention.
They were laughing at their own inside jokes and hitting each other on the shoulders, the polar opposite of the rest of the band sitting with perfect back posture and instruments in lap.

They were drummers.

When the band began to play again, some students picked up their French horns and clarinets to blow away with puffy cheeks and red faces, but the drummers… there was something seriously cool about them.

They hit things. They were loud. Just the way they stood commanded a kind of unique authority that comes with teenage rebellion. They were in the band but somehow not at the same time.

I didn’t want to be a bored number in the audience; I wanted to be one of them. I told myself that I would be the next year.

My parents paid for me to have a few private drum lessons over the summer, and my mother had the school’s counselor sign me up for band.

I was a drummer, at least on paper.

Not a good one, but I was figuring it all out. It was a challenge to learn how to read music over one summer and play with students who had been reading music for years, but I figured it out enough to get by, and I loved it. I got to march in the local Christmas parade, at the beach, and even at Disneyland. It was the first time I was able to go out of town without my family. I got to get out of class for special seasonal concerts, and I had a good handful of guy friends who were like the musical version of the kids from the movie The Sandlot.

But I was pretty far behind the other guys in my musical abilities.

I heard something about spring performances approaching. I then overheard the other band members sharing about how they performed last year in front of the judges.

From hearing bits and pieces of various conversations, I eventually put together that the spring performances were when students had the opportunity to play a solo musical piece in front of a panel of judges. Each student would get a score and then get an award based on their division and ranking.

I was quick at memorizing music, but reading from a spotted page of notes was pretty much impossible. I would learn music during class by listening to other students play it once or twice and then emulate them exactly. I would stare at the sheet of music to appear as if I was actually reading it, but I wasn’t.

The only good thing about the spring performances was that it was optional although most of the students were participating.

At the end of class one day, my band instructor, Mr. Wolf, took me aside and said, “Terry, I know you struggle a little with reading music, but I found a solo for you that I believe you can handle. It will be a push, but I can work with you after school to help you learn it. It’s up to you, but if you want to participate in the spring performances, just let me know. Here’s the music in case you want to take it home and think about it.”

With the solo in hand, I went about my day a little changed. Mr. Wolf believed I could do it. He cared enough to offer his time to work with me after school to teach it to me. He cared enough to notice that I wasn’t really reading music but just memorizing it.

I went over the music a little at home and really considered my instructor’s offer.

For a long while.

But in the end, I didn’t take him up on it.

I never participated in the spring performances.

But knowing that someone outside my family cared enough to offer to sacrifice his time for me stayed with me and made the difficulties of adolescence a little more tolerable.

At the end of that year, I played with the drummers during that end of year assembly. I laughed with them as the principal congratulated us 8th graders. I went on to play drums in high school while playing almost every Sunday at church.

Now I mostly play on my steering wheel during twilight drives to the outskirts of town as I ponder life in prayer.

Sometimes people won’t take you up on your offers of kindness. Sometimes people won’t let you know how thankful they are for you. Sometimes people won’t share with you how you made their life a little better.

On the bad days, know that you most likely made a difference in those times when you were guided by the Spirit to offer to help others.

To Mr. Wolf, I probably seemed like typical kid who didn’t care, but I was so incredibly thankful for him. And although you don’t know it, people out there are so incredibly thankful for you.

Guidance in Becoming a Teacher

It was after school one common day in the 5th grade when my mother sat me down and said, “Someday you’ll have a job that you’ll go to everyday for the rest of your life. What would you want to do?”

I know the 10-year-old me probably answered by saying a Lego designer or professional toy tester, but I really did think about her question. After a good amount of time of serious thinking, I went back to my mom and told her that I wanted to help people.

I wanted to someday have a job where I would get to help people everyday.

She explained that doctors help people, so I decided to be a doctor.

There was a problem with this plan though. I fainted if I saw blood. I don’t expect people to really understand this, and I have forgotten the official name of this diagnosis, but it had nothing to do with fear. My body would involuntarily faint all on its own.

When I was in high school, I took a health class in summer school to get ahead in my units. My health teacher was a mostly bald, elderly man with translucent skin, a pot belly, and bony legs that surprisingly held him up. Since it was summer school, he wore shorts and a collar neck shirt.

One day while he was teaching on the cardiovascular system, he described to us how he had heart surgery before and how the doctors went through an artery in his leg to get to his heart. Seeing his protruding blue veins through his fishlike skin was just too much.

I became lightheaded and felt a slight chill. My hands became clammy, and my forehead started to perspire. I leaned down in my desk and crossed one leg over the other to try to get some blood flow back to my head.

I did not want to be known as the kid who fainted in health class.

I raised my hand and asked to use the restroom. The teacher motioned with his hand for me to go—his white haired, translucent skinned, blue veined arm.

I hurried out of the classroom as everything turned to white and then laid down outside next to the wall. With my knees elevated, I watched my vision return to me through the faded white.

I always thought I would grow out of this inconvenient condition, but I was slowly realizing I wouldn’t be able to help people as a medical doctor.

But I could help them with their psychological problems. Thus, I decided to become a therapist.

In my undergrad years, this was my vocational plan. I was a psychology major, but while plugging away at classes, I noticed I really enjoyed my English classes. I also enjoyed the overall college experience even though my university definitely lacked on stereotypical college living. (Note to high school students, if you feel ready to go away for college, do it. At least for two years after you finish your general education classes.) I learned double majoring would only take about a year longer, and I would then have two BA degrees, so I majored in both psychology and English.

It was when I was working in the English Tutorial Center that I first thought that maybe I could be a real high school English teacher. I was teaching English and writing to college students, so I figured why not?

My dad always suggested I should be a teacher. He would mention how teachers got off earlier than most other jobs and that teachers got the summers off. He brought it up so many times that I eventually became frustrated and told him, “Dad, I don’t want to be a teacher. I never said I wanted to be a teacher. I’m going to be a marriage-family therapist. That’s been my goal the whole time. I’m keeping to it.”

I remember him responding, “I know, but I just think teaching would be a really good job.”

After I graduated from college with my two degrees, I was about to start the application process for a master’s program in psychology when my mom showed me an ad by a private Christian high school looking for an English teacher. My mom suggested I just swing by and introduce myself. I didn’t have a teaching credential, but I was a little curious if they would even consider hiring someone straight out of college.

I put on a tie that matched my khaki pants and my light blue dress shirt, and I drove across town to the big church, which was also the campus of the small high school.

I marched up the stairs to the portable administration building and said to the principal, “Hello, I’m Terry Tripp, and I wanted to speak to you about applying for the English position.”

She looked surprised and invited me to sit down. She then asked about my teaching and ministry experience. I told her about my years of tutoring experience at the university and how I even taught a few English labs there. I went on to tell her my many years of ministry experience, leading worship, teaching Bible studies, and being on church leadership. She smiled, and told me to hold on.

When she came back into the room, she had an older woman with her. The principal introduced the older woman as the curriculum administrator. The principal asked me to say again why I came in today.

I restated that I was interested in the English position, and the two women smiled at each other.

The principal opened a filing cabinet to pull out a 40-page application and said, “This morning the pastor of our church came in and said if a young man comes in inquiring about the English position to hire him on the spot because he’s from the Lord.”

I responded, “Wow, that’s great. I guess it’s hard to argue with that. How many people have been applying for this position?”

“You’re the first one in weeks,” she answered.

I spent a few hours at home filling out the application. I think I had to write out about three different forms of testimonies, and about a month later, I stepped onto that campus as a fulltime English teacher.

Months later on the last day before Christmas break, I took a moment to go outside and just stand still and exist.

There was Christmas music playing on the intercom, and students joyously interacted with each other while eating their lunches outside in the light fog.

They were young. They were happy. They still had that childlike innocence about them—free from the calluses of life.

Although I was excited about the two week break, at that moment I realized something that I didn’t think would happen.

I was going to miss them; I was going to miss my students—the literature that we adventured through together, the inside jokes we developed, the encouragement of the good days, the counseling of the bad ones.

I was doing a form of therapy. Not therapy where I would see a patient once a month, but therapy where I see my students an hour every school day for an entire school year.

I registered for classes in a teaching credential program and a master’s program in education and never looked back. I eventually changed subjects to teach visual art, which was a great change for me, and now I’m able to see students’ more creative side in a relaxed learning environment with more time to counsel and interact with them.

Sometimes God makes decisions very clear in life, practically opening the door for us. Other times when choices are not that clear, we have to use the wisdom that God has given us along with the truth of his scripture to make a decision.

When I was living in Azusa for the summer while working on my MFA in visual art, Steven, a good friend and fellow student, and I got into a memorable conversation while driving to check out some LA art galleries.

I asked, “Don’t you ever wonder if you made the right choice? Don’t you ever wonder what if?”

He boldly said, “No, I don’t.”

“Never?”

He explained, “Why should I? If I’m walking in the Spirit and if I’m praying about every decision and if I’m not living in sin, why should I question past choices? If God is guiding me and if he was guiding me in the past, then questioning my choices guided by his Spirit would be questioning him, and I’m not about to question God.”

Steven’s answer was life changing for me, and it taught me that God is always guiding us in our choices and decisions if we’re in fellowship with him. Sometimes his voice is loud and bold while sometimes it’s in the whisperings of the Holy Spirit and the remembrance of his word.

Drunken College Party

Read a novel. Write a paper. Come to class and debate: the simplified formula for literature classes in college.

And I loved it.

Nine novels in a few months with all my other psychology classes and active social life… but the advanced discussions and safe debates with other students made it oddly enjoyable.

Debating literary themes and the secret intentions of fictitious characters was far safer than tiptoeing around subjects like politics, religion, and the multitude of social issues. The raw discussions and connectivity of the classroom conversations helped students form deeper relationships, while in some of my psychology classes, we just silently took notes from the professor’s lectures.

There’s an experience that happens through stories that connects people. From going to the movies together on a first date, participating in a neighborhood book club, or even sitting around the campfire, people bond together through the experience of storytelling.

As my professor gave our class a 10-minute break from our literary discussion, students moved around the classroom to stretch and socialize.

“Terry, are you coming to my birthday party?” a girl asked—I think her name was Cassie or Stephanie… let’s just call her Cassie.

“Birthday party? What’s this nonsense all about?” I responded.

Cassie smiled, “Well, I’m turning 25, so I’m getting wasted! I so need a break from this crazy quarter. So totally come, bring a friend too. There’s going to be plenty of alcohol.”

“Okay, I’ll be there. I’m not a drinker though, but I would love to hang out.”

Cassie began writing down her address, “Alrighty then! Here’s my apartment. Come whenever, we’ll be up all night.”

I folded up the torn piece of paper Cassie handed me and put it away in my pocket.

That Friday night I drove to pick up Shawn, who always hung out with me during those early college years. I pulled into his driveway, and he came walking to my car cleaning his black rim glasses with the bottom of shirt.

“What’s up, man?” he sat back in my car looking through his clean glasses now ready and eager for the night.

I pulled out the folded address and told him about the party, and we were on our way.

As we walked up through the parking lot, we found a group of people standing outside on the patio smoking. I might have recognized one of them from school. Lights flashed through the upstairs window and low bass rumbled all the way down to the souls of our shoes.

Inside the upstairs apartment, we were greeted by Cassie expressing how happy she was that I came to her birthday party, as she over enunciated each syllable to hide her tipsy slur. She introduced us to her roommate and her friends, and they offered us an extended bar full of a plethora of alcoholic beverages. I was naive in the brands and types of alcohol, but the group stood proudly around the makeshift bar, which communicated to me they must have had quite a desirable collection for a group of college students.

Cassie’s roommate proudly give us a tour of their apartment, once again mentioning the bar. She was really excited to show us the living room, which had a monthly calendar painted on its wall, about six by nine feet in size.

Within each dated box, there was a little drawing and some words written. One read, “American lit. paper due.” Others read, “Wild acid trip” and “Frist threesome experience.” She explained to us how it was her art project and how she would take a Polaroid photograph of the wall and then repaint it at the beginning of each month to have a collection of all her experiences documented in a unique way.

When we ran back into Cassie, she asked us again if we wanted anything to drink. We told her no, and she said, “No, Terry, seriously, we have more than enough drinks, have something.”

“Thanks, but I’m good. I’m just happy being here.”

“I’m getting you a drink. What do you want?” she moved behind the bar.

I knew she wasn’t going to give this up, so I eventually told her, “I actually don’t drink.”

She froze for a moment and replied, “Oh my gosh, you’re like a real Christian.”

“We talked about church that one time in class,” I reminded her.

“Yeah, but a lot of people go to church or even claim to be a Christian though.” She looked around her apartment noticing people grinding up on each other. She looked to a girl passed out on her couch. She looked at the oversized calendar painted on the wall and then to the red cup in her hand. “This must be so offensive to you. I’m so sorry.”

“No, no, don’t apologize. I don’t want you to feel bad about anything. I just wanted to celebrate your birthday with you and let you know I care.”

She didn’t respond for a moment and then searched for the right words, “Thanks so much. I don’t think many people would be here to just celebrate my birthday. You are a real Christian.”

“I’m just a forgiven sinner hanging out with some nice people.”

Cassie smiled and pointed to Shawn, “Is he a real Christian too?”

Shawn said, “I hope so!” He then checked the tag on the inside of his jacket. “Yup, 100 percent real Christian.” And this made Cassie laugh.

Shawn and I stuck around for a little while longer and then took off. While driving Shawn said, “It’s kind of sad that people are surprised to find actual Christians.”

Over the years, I thought a lot about Cassie’s statement. Sadly, there have been some times in my life where people wouldn’t have known I was a real Christian. I think that can be said for most believers. Even Peter publically denied Christ three times.

I think evangelism is a combination of living a pure life and being honest about when we don’t. It’s letting people know that we’re still growing up spiritually and that we struggle. And in our struggles, God’s grace is sufficient. It’s taking the focus off us and placing it onto Jesus.

The Faithful Commitment

The story is somewhat vague to me, but one of the first times my mom brought my dad home, my nanny’s sisters were over. My nanny later said to my mom, “How dare you bring that long haired hippie over when your family’s all here.”

My papa said to my nanny, “Honey, that there is a good boy,” and my nanny trusted my papa.

Required to get a legal signature for permission from his parents, my dad married my mom at 17, and she was 18. Even at such a young age, both of them agreed to do something extreme.

They decided to make a commitment to never allow any drugs or alcohol into their home.

They weren’t Baptist. They didn’t even go to church. But both sides of my family had siblings who struggled with drug addictions, and they had seen the dangers that come with alcohol. They wanted to safeguard their home, their marriage, and their future children.

As a high school teacher today, I examine the maturity levels of some of my seniors, and I’m further impressed by my parents’ monumental decision at such a young age.

Because of their precocious wisdom, my parents were able to give me one of the most precious gifts a kid could ever receive—a good and safe childhood.

I never had to worry about Mom or Dad drinking too much, and drugs were merely an alien concept that existed in another world.

When I was around 10, my mom and I went to the lake with one of my best friends and his mother. His mother had a drinking problem. Instead of bringing a bottle with her, she had a Big Gulp that she kept sipping out of throughout the day. In a few hours, she was passed out, and we all learned it wasn’t soda she had been sipping.

With my mom driving us all home in our minivan and his mother recovering in the passenger seat, my close friend sat one seat away from me trying to hide his tears as he sniffled privately.

I never had to experience anything like that in my house.

It was safe.

But commitments aren’t always easy to uphold.

Although my aunt Lana was only a few years younger than my mother, she almost seemed more like an older sister than an aunt. Not marrying or having children helped her stay in the youthful state of the vogue of the younger generation. She still listened to current popular music and dressed in a way that the kids at my school would say she was pretty if they ever saw her with me.

But she wasn’t around that much.

Sadly, drugs had taken her away from us; she didn’t ever want us to see her when she wasn’t doing well.

When she was around, she completed the family with her uplifting energy, smile, and life-bringing laugh.

I was in the fourth grade, and my family hadn’t heard from Lana in a while. Back before cell phones and social media, you couldn’t keep track of people as well, and honestly, I don’t think my family knew if she were dead or alive at the time.

One regular day my parents heard a knock at the door, and there she was with one of her guy friends. She was unhealthily skinny, which we all knew wasn’t a good sign, but she put on her loving smile and gave us all hugs being happy to see us. I remember my mom looking so thankful that her sister was alive and with her again.

Then Lana went to use the bathroom. After a few minutes, I noticed a disappointing look overcome my dad’s face. Lana eventually came out of the bathroom, and my dad walked in it. When he came out, he said, “Sorry, Lana, but you have to go now.”

She understood and left quickly. I saw my mom’s face fall as she watched her only sibling leave, not knowing if she would ever see her again.

As the front door shut, my mom was already in tears as she pleaded with my dad, “Couldn’t we just have let her stay? She’s not doing well at all.”

My dad restated the commitment, “No one is going to do drugs in this house. It’s our rule. We aren’t going to allow it for her or from anyone.”

I thought my mom was going to be angry. Maybe even furious. I was mentally preparing for some sort of fight—something huge. But my mom did something that I know was extremely difficult for her. She wiped her eyes and said, “You’re right. We can’t.” She looked down. “It’s just that she has had such a hard life.”

My dad responded gently, “I know.”

She and my dad honored their commitment even when it was the most difficult, and they probably didn’t even realize there was a blond hair, little boy watching from the hallway and learning valuable lessons that no scholarly article or academic book nor the most renowned college professor would ever come close to teaching.

Right after high school many years later, I went to a home Bible study associated with a church nearby. The father of the home who lead the study said to us, “If you could only have one word written on your tombstone someday, no name or bio, no dates of your lifespan, just one word, what would that word be?”

I thought about this question for a while as other people threw out words like, “kind” and “helpful.” Some said, “successful” and “ambitious.” Eventually, someone asked him what his one word would be, and he replied, “Faithful.”

Coming from little money with no real education, two young people, 17 and 18, decided to start a family being faithful to their commitments. And because of their selfless faithfulness, they allowed for their children to have a childhood full of peace, love, and safety, so growing up wouldn’t have to happen too fast.

Let’s pray that God helps us all be able to have “faithful” written on our tombstones someday.

The Great Debate

In my later high school and early undergrad years, argumentative and theologically minded Christians, mostly male, discovered what they thought to be the greatest debate in Christian apologetics—predestination versus freewill. Some took tremendous pride in labeling themselves strict five-point Calvinists while others stood on the side of freewill.

Each person researched and collected their share of Bible verses to back up their side—reading the Bible to destroy someone in a debate instead of growing closer to Christ. And yes, I was guilty of this myself.

We were young and dumb (immature), but instead of going out and getting plastered on the weekends, we were in Taco Bell or Starbucks studying up for our next debate. So I guess it wasn’t the worse thing in the world. We were friendly in the end, and it was mostly just for fun—something to do.

After many agonizing years of considering the ideas of predestination and freewill, I’ve come to two conclusions.

First, don’t ever create a system or formula for God because he is far too big for that.

Second, somethings in life are a paradox, and that’s okay. A paradox doesn’t mean that two things contradict; it means they only seemingly contradict but are actually both true.

God’s ways are not our ways, and that’s a good thing. We, as humans, are stuck in linear time, only able to move in one direction, but God is the creator of time, so he is not confined to it. He can exist outside of time.

So what are humans doing creating five points of anything to explain God in their limited thinking and lack of any experience existing outside of time itself?

Basic arrogance.

We should study these ideas and see what the Bible says about them. We can come up with humble conclusions, but in the end, we don’t know for sure how or why God does what he does.

Especially salvation.

It would be like a toddler trying to figure out why her dad is investing in a particular company in the stock market, but then multiply that example by a number with too many zeros to count.

We are only human.

Overall, I think it was my choice to accept Christ as my savior, but I don’t exist outside of time, and I’m not a scholarly theologian, but I am a storyteller.

I was about five or six—old enough to play in my fenced in front yard out in Derby Acers—practically in the middle of nowhere. I don’t remember what I was playing, but I was most likely running around in the short, green grass pretending to be Luke Skywalker or a medieval swordsmen. Maybe my Sheltie, Boy, was running around with me. My mom was most likely in the house preparing dinner for my dad after his long day of welding in the oilfields. The sun was falling behind the small foothills under the western sky, leaving behind a painted scene of vibrant orange, red, and pink.

I stopped playing for a moment, taken away by the arrangement of colors. The cooling of the evening. The soft breeze.

“You are my son.”

My first memory of hearing that inaudible voice that came from within—God’s Holy Spirit.

It wasn’t in actual words, but a spiritual language of its own that still clearly conveyed meaning.

I’m not for sure if that moment lasted a few minutes or only seconds, but it happened. I went back to playing until the night sky motioned me to go in for dinner.

Thus, my thoughts on the great debate is concluded in a story of a father calling out his son.

Candy Bars

I can’t recall the purpose of the fundraiser, but I remember that we got entered into a drawing for selling candy bars my 7th grade year in junior high. The candy bars came in three varieties: almond, caramel, and milk chocolate. If you left one in your pocket for a minute or so, it would be soft to the touch and melt in your mouth. Each candy bar contained a dollar-off coupon to a local pizza place on the wrapper, which was a selling point that I would employ.

I remember being excited after school to begin selling the box of 40 chocolate candy bars as I tightly wrapped the neon laces around my rollerblades. In only a few days, I covered a lot of ground and sold the entire box by going door-to-door.

I proudly turned in the lighter box that now rattled with lose change and dollar bills. The finance lady in the office at school congratulated me cheerfully and said, “You sold those quick! You should definitely check out another box.”

I smiled in shock until I came up with some excuse, but the lady wasn’t having it. She responded, “Nonsense, I want a good boy like you to have a better chance at winning the drawing; here’s another box.”

Still terribly shy at that age, I apprehensively took it and made my way home after school.

I walked through my front door. My mom saw me instantly and asked, “Another box?”

“Yeah …”

Passionless now, I procrastinated a few days before I would skate out to make the rounds again.

Eventually, I got the energy after school one day to tightly pull the laces of my rollerblades again and make my way outside to start the door-to-door routine.

The first house said, “No, thank you.”

The second house did the same.

The third house said, “Sorry, but we already bought some candy bars three different times from other kids at your school. We’re done.”

I skated on, but only got the same answers. No one was buying anymore, and I had 36 candy bars left to sell; my family had eaten a few.

Failing my arduous mission, I slowly skated home.

A few days went by, and my mom asked when the money was due for the second box of candy bars.

I informed her that it was due on Friday, and it was already Thursday.

I overheard her talking with my dad about how if I don’t learn to be responsible now, I’ll grow up to be a bum. With my dad backing her up, my mom told me to go out and sell the remaining candy bars and to not come back until I was done or it was night.

I tightened up my rollerblades again and headed back out to the streets of agony, but I tried to stay positive.

I hoped maybe this time I would get lucky. Maybe people would be ready for another candy bar. Maybe payday came, and they now had money to spare. Maybe they would just happen to have a random sugar craving the moment I rang the doorbell.

Nope.

They were annoyed for being disturbed once again by another kid selling candy bars.

I was annoying people, and I hated it. I hated seeing their eyes roll back into their heads. I hated them quickly barking out “Not interested!” I hated them complaining to me about already being bothered multiple times by kids like me.

I now skated around aimlessly with that heavy, cardboard box of 36 candy bars in the springtime heat. I had no idea where to go, until I came up with the grand prize of all ideas—Nanny and Papa’s!

I turned around to start skating to Nanny and Papa’s house, which was not too far from my house. They would at least listen to my dilemma and give me some type of advice or guidance.

I rang their doorbell, and Papa answered, “Terry!” he turned to my grandma sitting on the couch, “That boy’s here!”

Yes, I was “that boy” to my grandparents because I was their only boy.

I took off my heavy rollerblades and sat on their couch to begin explaining my dilemma. Nanny responded after listening to my dramatic situation, “Let me see those candies.”

I opened the box and showed her them.

Nanny said to Papa, “Honey, aren’t those my favorite candies?”

Papa answered, “Oh, I think they are.”

“Hand me my bolsa, Papa.” She liked to throw in random Spanish words every now and then since my Papa came from Mexico. She then asked me, “You said they were only a dollar each?”

“Yes, a dollar each.” It was looking like my nanny and papa were going to buy a candy bar, and at this point, anything helped.

“How many do you have left?” Nanny asked,

“I have 36 left.”

“That’s it? Well, I guess I’ll have to buy you out then.”

I skated back to my parents’ house as a victor. I walked in through the front door as my mom quickly asked from the couch with my dad watching, “Did you sell them all?” I could tell she was concerned that I was home so quickly.

“Yup.”

“All of them?” she asked sternly.

“Yup, all of them. I sold them all.”

She sat back on the couch figuring me out: “You went to Nanny’s house, didn’t you?”

“Maybe,” I smiled walking to my room.

Years later, I remember talking to my Nanny about that day, and she recalled the pleasant story laughing, “Oh, I remember that day, and I hated those candies.”

I didn’t win my school’s fundraiser drawing, but my nanny and papa taught me a little more about grace that day. I took that second box of chocolate and owed a debt that I couldn’t pay. I tried to get out of debt by annoying neighbor after neighbor, but when I went to the right place, the right person, it was paid in full.

I try to remind myself of this grace when people in my life make choices that get them in debt—in trouble. I try to remember this grace when I have to pay their debt to help them.

If you want to be a leader and an effective minister of reconciliation in this world, there are going to be times when you need to help pay another person’s debt, even if it is completely their fault.

It might be something very serious, or something as silly as buying 36 chocolate candy bars from a kid, but no matter what, prepare yourself to show grace when the Holy Spirit directs you to pay another’s debt.

Undercover Sheep

Young, inexperienced, ignorant, immature, and prone to failure. Full of zest, energy, passion, eagerness, and a zeal to do what is right. Add some wild, unexplored hormones, and mix a few street kids with some homeschoolers with overly protective parents. Put a pastor in charge who really is just paying his dues until he can be a senior pastor. Give it a name so cheesy that even Carmen wouldn’t include it in his 90’s lyrics, and what do you have?

High school youth group.

Yes, the best of times and the worst of times.

Biblical messages were often black and white, and if you saw Austin Powers, you were a bad Christian.

Most of us kissed dating goodbye and wore a purity ring or a WWJD bracelet but fooled around just enough to really learn what it meant to push the line, but we still sang on the worship team the next morning.

It’s not that we weren’t authentic. We weren’t faking anything. We knew what was pure, right, and true, but high school is hard. Growing up is challenging.

It’s an everyday bloom.

There’s so much to learn in such a short amount of time, and finding the balance of what you’re supposed to figure out on your own and what you’re just supposed to believe others about is a confusing task.

But there we were, trying our best to love God and serve others. Lifting each other back up after every wicked fall. Maybe that’s what church is all about. Yes, there was drama. People’s feelings got hurt, but we said sorry and got over it.

We were a family.

And like a family, there’s always that cousin who’s a little odd, and you may not really like him all that much, but you still love him.

Because no one should “go it alone”—a phrase I can still hear my youth pastor say in his calm, low voice.

We were also taught about sharing our faith, and it was in Christian vogue to paint “Ask Me” on our Jansport backpacks if we could find an empty space not covered in patches and buttons.

I’m not sure today how I feel about “evangelizing” to strangers. From my many experiences, I don’t feel the Hey, Can I Tell You About Jesus? approach is really that effective today in America. Tracks are a bad idea too; Jesus isn’t a product to sell, and we aren’t salesmen. It’s an honor to follow Christ. If someone can be talked into it, they can be talked out of it.

The best way to evangelize is to build relationships with people and let them see the light that is in you. Yes, it’s a lot easier to just walk up to a stranger and share with them the newest method of street evangelism, but Jesus says in Matthew to make disciples of all nations, not just tell everyone who he is.

It’s teaching versus telling.

I was only in high school, and I was in the telling phase then, so I would find people to tell about Jesus.

There was this custodian on my high school campus. Everyone saw him, but no one would ever talk to him. He was about 45 to 50. He had short, fading hair and a dirty looking mustache. He walked fast in short steps from side to side and kind of hunched over as if he had a minor back injury. The custodial grey uniforms didn’t help his style in any way. Wearing dusty grey on grey with tennis shoes from the early 90s that showed little evidence that they were ever white added to his overall appearance.

But he was the one I felt God told me to share Jesus with, so as he was changing the bag in one of the hallway trash cans, I went up to him and said hi and went on to tell him about Jesus.

In the back of my mind, I was thinking how my youth pastor would be proud of me.

The custodian said very kindly, “I know who Jesus is. He’s my savior and heavenly father. Everyone here may think I’m just cleaning up the campus, but I’m really silently praying for every one of you all day long.”

I responded, “That’s so awesome!”

He smiled and continued, “Thanks. I guess in a way, I’m an undercover sheep.”

From that moment on, I always made sure to say hi to him, and the band I was in at the time even wrote a song after him titled “Undercover Sheep.” It was really just a simple cord progression, punk rock song where the whole band yelled the words “undercover sheep” every so often, but it was fun.

That day I learned more from a custodian than from a pastor. I learned something that would stay with me for the rest of my life.

I learned that you don’t have to be in what some people call “fulltime ministry” to be in fulltime ministry.