Christmas Land – Chapters 1 & 2

Christmas Land the novel is coming to Amazon this Christmas season. You can be the first to read it here on Tripp Blog. Please be advised that this version is the rough draft, so suggested corrections or typos are appreciated and can be emailed to the following: terrytrippwriting@gmail.com

Christmas Cindy

Chapter 1

“I’m serious; it really talked to me,” Candy exclaimed. Her real name was Candace, but everyone called her candy.

“Yup, okay. I hung out with the monster under my bed last night. We drank some hot coco and played on our phones for a good hour or so,” Cindy replied to her friend.

“Cindy, I’m serious.” Candy let her know she wasn’t joking around.

A moment of silence went by.

And then another as Cindy steadily steered on the evening road. She finally responded, “Was this a real snowman? Like made of snow or someone in a costume?”

Candy pulled back her curly, blonde hair back to explain, “I was walking back home from checking my mailbox, and I went past Mr. Elwood’s old house—you know, Grace’s late grandfather—and there was a snowman in the front yard, probably made by the Gustafson’s kids. So I walk past it, and I hear in a voice that was more in my head but not my own say—.”

“What the heck!” Cindy yelled as she slammed on her breaks. The cute car slid wildly on the icy asphalt until it crunched into a short wall of fresh snow. “Stupid idiots on their phones!”

The two got out of the tiny, red car that Cindy got five years ago when she was in high school. After examining it for damage, she saw it was just a little powder snow that she had ran into. The car in front of them had driven off like nothing had happened. The two girls got back into their car and drove off, talking about how they just almost died.

Cindy dropped Candy off in her front yard. It was almost night now, and Candy’s foot slid a little on the icy sidewalk as she began to walk to her house.

“Shopping tomorrow after work?” Cindy asked.

“Of course, but let’s go down to West Gate again.” West Gate was a large mall about 45 minutes out of town down in the valley.

“Stay dandy, Candy!”

“See you, skinny Cindy.”

Cindy wasn’t the skinny, little girl from their childhood, but the nick name stuck. She had filled out into a still thin but womanly figure, her eyes large and blue with mid-length, wavy, light brunette hair. She had always secretly envied Candy’s golden curls since her own blonde hair darkened and straightened when became a teen. But she hated her nose. It wasn’t the cute button nose that other girls had; it was long and pointed—not ugly but just unique.

Cindy pulled off back into the street as snow began to lightly fall onto her windshield. As she passed the Gustafson’s house, she looked across the street to the abandoned house where her old friend’s grandfather once lived. Grace had grown up with Cindy and Candy but had gone off to college by the beach and never returned to their little, country town of Timberton Heights, as a lot of young people did. When the old man died, no one moved into the house, and it slowly died too.

The Gustafson family were a different group of people. The husband and wife had five children, and like their parents, every single child had fiery red hair and a face full of freckles. They always seemed to get into any mess they could find. A few years ago, they started kidnapping dogs and then waited for reward signs to go up in the town. As soon as the signs went up, one of the children happened to find the lost dog and happily collected the reward. After several dogs people began catching on, and the kids were eventually found out. The owners of the kidnapped dogs demanded their money back from Mr. And Mrs. Gustafson’s, but no one ever received anything.

As Cindy glanced in her rear-view mirror, she noticed a peculiar snowman—sticks for hands like he was waving, rocks for eyes, carrot for nose, and an old scarf wrapped around its neck. It even had an old top hat like the epic children’s tale. She thought if it just had a corn cob pipe, it might even come to life.

At 10:00 that night, a buzzing came from Cindy’s phone on her nightstand. It was a text from Candy’s mother asking if Candy was with her.

Cindy sat in bed that night disappointed that she had nothing helpful to offer Candy’s mother. Candy didn’t have a car. She didn’t appear to be texting anyone else that night. Cindy and Candy shared an honest friendship where she would have mentioned any plans of meeting up with anyone else. She texted Candy’s mother back an empty answer and stared at the shadows on her wall that came in through the window’s curtain from naked, swaying trees.

While the dryness of her eyes scratched against her closing lids, Cindy finally began to drift as her head weighed heavily into her pillow. Fading images flashed through her mind in the silence of her bedroom until one stuck. It was a childhood memory of her, Candy, and Grace at her elementary school’s Christmas performance when she was in the first grade. It was a special year because her class was telling the nativity story, and Cindy got to play the Christmas angel. All the other girls wanted to play Mary but not Cindy. She had no real memory of her father because he didn’t stay around after she was born. But this Christmas he was in town, and she was going to meet him for the real first time. She didn’t want to wear the rags that Mary wore. She wanted to wear the pretty white dress and the halo that the angel wore. She wanted her father to think she was beautiful and decide to stay in town to be with her.

The evening of the Christmas performance, her class was doing one final rehearsal. She, Candy, and Grace were playing near the stage, but Cindy made sure to be extra cautious not to get her white dress dirty. Their teacher moved them all backstage. Cindy peaked through the heavy side curtains and found her mother and grandmother in the audience. She looked at all the men sitting out them and wondered which one was her dad. She worried about what she would call him. Father? No, Daddy? Dad?

The teacher motioned them to move out onto the stage to take their positions. The stage lights burned bright, and all the of the audience slipped into darkness. She stood up straight and smiled from cheek to cheek like her grandma had rehearsed with her. When her lines came, she said them from memory with absolute perfection. The audience applauded cheerfully as the holy nativity was performed with such brilliant innocence. After the other classes all performed their skits, the principal made his concluding seasonal speech, and the students were released to go back with their parents. The skinny, little angel searched through the tall towers of adults looking for her mother and grandmother eager for the moment that she would see her father. Any one of the grown men around her could be him. She stood straight and walked as she had seen proper little girls on television walk, not knowing if her father was already watching her.

“Absolutely wonderful, my dear!” her grandmother bend over to hug her.

“You were the perfect angel. So beautiful,” her mother sweetly said as she got down on one knee to be on her level.

“Where’s my dad?” she asked with eyes moving back and forth to all the movement around her.

Her mother’s smile turned into a straight line. “Honey, he didn’t make it.”

His name was Jack, and he didn’t make it. That’s all she ever knew of her father. That and supposedly they had the same nose.

Just like that childhood night many years ago, this night was going to be one of those nights as well, where Cindy knew she would sleep without sleeping.

Chapter 2

Cindy woke up to the 6:00 alarm that was set on her phone. She quickly noticed three new text messages form Candy’s mother. She scanned through them and texted her back quickly explaining how she really had no idea where Candy was. She figured their plans to go to West Gate would be canceled because Candy’s parents were going to be furious when Candy finally did come home. Although Candy was 22, living at home meant living under her parents’ rules, and staying out all night was inexcusable, if she was okay. Cindy worried a little, hoping that Candy would text soon.

Unlike Candy, Cindy lived on her own in a small apartment. The word her landlord called it was tidy. She grew up in a house with her mother and grandmother. As soon as Cindy graduated high school, her mother married a man named Zack and decided to move away to the coast, which was a few states away. They offered for her to live with them, but it all seemed too different, too weird, and she didn’t want to leave her grandma alone. She liked living at her grandma’s house. There was history to it, and it was on the outskirts of town. The backyard opened up to trees and mountains, and there was an old wedding alter back there that was once hung over her grandma and her grandpa some long history ago. Through years of rain, snow, wind, and sun, her grandma added support to it in the winter and grew vines and flowers on it during the spring. She always called it her magical doorway to the past. She would sometimes go out just to stand under it and smile as if she could see a world of past memories.

Last November, her grandmother suffered a sudden heart attack. She spent three weeks in the hospital trying to cover, but her body began to fail one part at a time until there was no hope.

That house now lay abandoned.

Cindy didn’t want to leave Timberton Heights; she didn’t want to leave her past. She moved into her apartment when her mother sold the family house to an investor from out of town, but no one ever moved into it. No one visited it. It now joined the collection of the other abandoned houses in Timberland that were left to ruin until the land was worth enough to tear down and build something else.

Mostly alone now, Cindy refused to leave her hometown. The original buildings that lined the downtown area contained both wooden logs and red brink, and they made up most of the downtown area with the mom and pop stores and restaurants. Hills and mountains surrounded the town with snowy caps for half the year. This year, Timberton Heights had already experienced early snow that came right after Thanksgiving, making the town already feel like Christmas.

Cindy’s grandmother, who she called Nana loved Christmas, and Timberton Heights was what people called a Christmas town. Cindy had a year to prepare on how she would celebrate Christmas this year without Nana. She finally decided on putting up a waist-high Christmas tree in her apartment, a wreath on the front door, and a few other Christmassy decorations around the small space, which wasn’t much at all compared to how Nana would decorate. But like Nana, she did put out cinnamon scented pinecones, which made her white-walled space feel a little more like home.

It was 6:15 now, and she finally pushed through her weighing blankets to get out of bed. She turned on her Christmas tree lights and went to her refrigerator for a class of cold milk, ignoring the cold chill that broke through the thin walls of her apartment. She stared at the colorful lights on the little tree, and thought about how Nana would be proud of her. After making her bed and waking up in a warm shower, and getting ready for the day, she stepped out into a few inches of fresh powder snow. The streets were already plowed, so she would be fine getting to work this Friday morning.

She worked for a small app development company that was working hard to take off. They were called Alter Dimensions, and they were the most technological company in the town of Timberton Heights. The town was known for its distribution of firewood throughout the country, so an app company was rare and unusual. There were only five employees who were a part of Alter Dimensions. Cindy was one of the two graphic designers, so she spent most of her time behind a computer screen on Adobe Illustrator meticulously creating vector images for every part of the company’s newest app.

Alter Dimensions’ work space was simple with one enclosed office for the owner Cliff and open wide desks for the rest of the employees. Cliff was about forty and known for his multitasking. He always appeared to be busy but not necessarily always productive. The other graphic designer in the office was Tyler Jamison. People called him TJ. It wasn’t really shorter than Tyler, but it’s what people did called him. He was really into video gaming and running his YouTube video game channel, and he always wore his red hoodie over his head. There were also two programmers who sat in the corner and didn’t really speak that much to anyone. They did the crutch of the work of the company, but you wouldn’t even know they were there most of the time.

Right before lunch the door burst open, and Mr. Woolworth came pushing through with his arms holding warm drinks. “Merry Christmas!” he hollered. “I have hot chocolates for all of you.”

Mr. Woolworth was Alter Dimensions’ main and only investor. He was in his sixties and retired. His wife ran off after her retired, and he never bothered to go after her. He was now obsessed with the youthful app company and wanted to live vicariously through its success, so he normally came in on Friday’s for a few minutes to hang out and steal some of the youth of the office.

Cindy said, “Thanks, Mr. Woolworth, but it’s only December 1st today.”

“Exactly, and the Christmas season started after Thanksgiving dinner. I’m sorry I’m late.”

TJ went for his hot chocolate, “Hey, I’m not complaining. Let’s have Merry Christmas all year long.” He lightly toasted his drink to Mr. Woolworth.

After the usual greetings, Mr. Woolworth always shared his newest idea of an app, although he barely used his own smartphone; he was still fascinated with the idea of technology and its association with youth.

“So I’ve been thinking …” is how he always started. “How about an app for walking your dog? We can call it Dog’s Best Friend. It can include GPS maps of all the streets and trails that are dog friendly.”

And after these weekly ideas that almost never got carried out, the entire team would nod and agree excitedly as if they were eager to drop everything they were doing to take on a whole new project.

What was really special about Mr. Woolworth was that he came in each year and decorated the workspace with for the Christmas season. This reminded Cindy of Nana.

During her lunch Cindy texted Candy multiple times to try to find out where she was last night. She never received a text back. She really started to worry now, but maybe Candy’s mom took away her cell phone, or maybe the battery died. She tried to reason with herself all the possibilities of why her friend wasn’t texting her back. She finished out her long day with all of this on her mind and went home.

It was one of those Friday nights that you look forward to until it actually arrives because you remember that there’s nothing to do. There wasn’t really much to do at all for a single girl in her twenties in Timberton Heights. Cindy decided that she would walk around the corner to the local bookstore. At least she wouldn’t be alone.

She crunched her way through the flattened snow as it reflected street lights mixed with the Christmas colors on houses nearby. This street, like many streets in Timberton Heights during the Christmas season, exhibited stringed Christmas decorations hung across it, garland with bells and angels; the decorations varied from street to street.

The bookstore was an old bank building converted into a welcoming bookstore. Different rooms were set up for different genres of literature. This was an amusing setup that the locals in town enjoyed, especially since the horror and suspense novels were kept in an old safe with the thick door unhinged but still leaning against the wall for nostalgic purposes. As Cindy walked through the bookstore, the old wooden floor creaked with every step and even sank in a little. A section of the bookstore featured used books that smelled like ancient libraries, but most of the books in the store were new.

She walked around as her hand lighted grazed the illustrated covers on the bookshelves. She thought about all the stories. Each with a character. Each someone a little bit like her. She wondered if she would ever have a story, or would she just design apps for people to entertain themselves to escape life a little more.

A Christmas display caught her eye, and near the top of the display was Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, along with other popular classics like The Gift of the Magi and Twas the Night Before Christmas. Elaborate Christmas cards sat at the bottom on the display featuring scenes of painted snow and lights—not too different than Timberton Heights. It was littles things like this that made Cindy like her town, and if Nana were there with her, she would marvel at the display with her and probably comment about the first time she read A Christmas Carol and talk about an old Christmas painting that her father once painted that was similar to the cards.

Cindy couldn’t image a Christmas without snow, especially one at the beach. Yes, she enjoyed the beach in the summer and definitely went out to visit her mother and stepdad, but it was Christmastime, and at Christmastime she wanted to be in a Christmas Land. Nana understood this; her mother, not so much. This brought Cindy an odd sense of abandonment—not because her mother moved away but because she actually didn’t care too much for Christmas.

Cindy would agree with her mother that the snow was sometimes hard to live in, and it was definitely cold, but that’s what brought people together—the cold.

Christmas was an odd sort of paradoxical holiday for Cindy. What should have been a dark, cold, and bleak time of year was actually warm, as people would come out and be with each other around a fire. It was colorful, as people put up bright lights that reflected off the snowy grown to create even more light. It was hopeful and full, and streets, homes, yards, malls were all decorated with icons of seasonal stories that pointed to hope for all.

Yes, this was Christmas.

Where people say, “God bless us, every one!”

Where people sing that war is over.”

Where people dream of the pure snow washing over the town.

Where people go rockin’ around the Christmas tree.

It truly was the most wonderful time of year.

But Cindy looked around the bookstore and didn’t see anyone. The music that was on when she first walked into the store was turned off. She thought that maybe they were closing.

It was silent now.

She decided to go back home.

Cindy was careful not to slip on the outside sidewalk that was bordered with snow. As she walked only a few cars drove by, and it felt much darker than it had before. Her footsteps echoed on the cold concrete. Her hands sunk deeply into her coat pocket, wrapping her coat tightly around her.

She felt something nearby.

Behind her.

But when she looked, it was nothing.

Her speed increased, and she glanced more quickly this time to find a figure behind. She looked around for nearby cars or other people walking on the street, but there was nothing.

Her body shivered with the cold. She looked behind her again to check on the figure. It appeared to be a man in deep, dark clothing, hood hanging far over his face.

She sharply turned the corner of her street and walked even faster.

The figure did the same.

Her shoes tapping the ground echoed off the quiet building walls, and the sound soon doubled with his. Looking over her shoulder one last time, he was there.

To Think and to Live 

blog car

Austere seat belt rules seemed to be less meticulous back in the 80s as I loosened up the tight restriction from my waist to lay my head against the boxy side window of the backseat. The telephone pole lines seemed to sway up and down with foothills blurred behind them as the car drove steadily on the two-lane road 

The Game Boy hadn’t been invited yet, and only the rich had televisions in their cars. My parents sometimes had the radio playing oldies quietly in the background on that enduring drive from Derby Acers to Bakersfield and from Bakersfield back to Derby Acers. And simply sat in the backseat of our long, white car with maroon seats and Life Savors dried into the matching floor mats and stared out the window, attempting to avoid car sickness.  

But I really did so much more than just stare—I thought.  

I thought about everything a small child could possibly think about. I wondered if I could strain my eyes hard enough to faintly see the Statue of Liberty in the distance. I reflected on cartoons I recently watched. I debated with myself the possible birthday presents I might get months down the road. I revisited confusing feelings I had about that one special girl at school. I anticipated the next time my best friend would come over and how we would team up to fight off imaginary alien invaders or protect our castle from medieval soldiers and dragons. I analyzed the lyrics of the quietly played tunes and tried to make sense of what was being sung. I soaked in the notes and the melody and felt the music.  

I thought. 

Those long drives were some of the best gifts my parents ever gave me because they gave me so much more than a ride from one point to another; they gave me time—free time.  

Time to think. 

Time to live. 

There were no cell phones, email, or social media. Video games were only in 8-bit. And television was something watched with my mom and dad on the couch.  

There was time to play. There was time create. And there was plenty of time to think freely. 

All of those minutes of thinking added up to make me who I am today. 

Someone who thinks. 

I didn’t need programs and lessons on the practice of thinking. I didn’t need an educational mindfulness curriculum. I just needed time. 

I hope I can someday give my children the same gift in this technologically packed society of today. I hope they can sit back and watch the telephone pole lines sway in the sunset and observe the mountains around them. I hope they can ponder what is beyond our visible sight. I hope that they can be still and know that God is God. I hope they can learn to hear that still small voice through the deafening static of our society.   

I hope they can think so that they can truly live. 

 

The Worst Job, Temporarily

 

blog

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.

Boom, Lights, and Revival

Fireworks

My young parents sat on a quilted blanket stretched out over fresh grass as we waited for the heavens and the earth to kiss. I was around five or six, wearing a red striped shirt and shorts.

Blond hair and blue eyes—the American kid of the eighties.

We were at the local baseball field of our small town waiting for the boom with other local families sitting in little patches on the grass.

I remember specifically that we were on part of the incline of the field where it was a little easier to watch the sky.

A star twinkled—two then ten.

And then came the boom.

The dim summer sky lit up in bright showers of color, and my parents looked down to watch my excitement.

I moved down to a prone position as I pretended to be a solider shooting down UFOs out of the sky who were invading our planet. Every time I shot my make-believe gun, an invisible UFO exploded and trickled down in burning pieces.

The sound and the colors paired with my imagination seemed more real than any 8-bit video game of the day.

Around 10 years later, learning a little more about American history and life in general, those fireworks still captured my attention, but I no longer shot down UFOs. Sitting outside, I closed my eyes and just listened to the sound of the boom move the ground beneath me as the bright lights flashed through my eye lids.

I imagined what it would have been like in that historical Revolutionary War knowing that each boom was most likely a life taken. I thought about the other wars too. All those soldiers who listened to the boom in a threatening manner. The ones fighting for what they believed was right. And the ones whose last sound they ever heard was that ominous boom.

I know the Fourth of July is a time to celebrate our freedom, but it’s difficult for me not to meditate for a moment on the people who once fought under those bright lights. Those who gave their all.

America is changing and sadly, those who sacrificed so much are being forgotten, but that doesn’t negate what God has done through this great land. Obviously, there has been some bad since it’s a land full of humans, but the story of us is one about God doing extraordinary things through people who didn’t really have a chance. Then he used those people to help others even though they weren’t perfect.

Does that sound familiar?

America today doesn’t look the same as it did 30 years ago, and it won’t look the same 30 years from now, but it’s still our story, and if we can bless others with our blessings and lead a confused and hurting nation back to the simple message of Jesus, it will have a good ending.

Historically, revival doesn’t begin with preaching but prayer.

Powerful, passionate, and patient prayer by God’s people.

From the Reformation to the First and Second Great Awakening to the Prayer Meeting Revival to the Camp Meetings to the Azusa Street Revival to the Jesus Freak Revival, and now to today, there is hope.

It’s time for this country to come back together, and politics will not accomplish that task, but Jesus can.

In John 17:21 (ESV), Jesus is recorded praying for us—the believers then and the believers now. He said to the father, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

We have a mighty responsibility in this country that should flow out to the entire world. In our worship to God, we are to spread his love and light to the lost and confused so that no one is alone and all are apart of the family of God. And through the propitiation of Christ, we can experience true freedom now and forever.

As we sit under those exploding lights of red, white, and blue and feel that boom rumble the ground beneath us, let’s silently pray as passionately as the poets and as bold as the beasts that God’s Holy Spirit will change this land by bringing the souls of this country in allegiance to him.

Greater Things than These

Return of the Jedi hit theaters in May of 1983 when I was two years old. Not too many people remember much about being two. I don’t either, but I do remember when my great grandfather died—sort of.

I remember driving home with my mom and nanny after his funeral in Bakersfield sitting in the back seat of the small car. I remember my nanny saying to my mom who was driving, “He really wasn’t all that great of a daddy” as her eyes were wet with grief.

Being so young, I was confused. I didn’t understand why she was crying if he hadn’t been a good daddy; my child size capacity of thinking was very limited.

I also remember my mother holding me as we looked at the open land in Derby Acers where our mobile home was going to be placed. We had been living in a trailer a few blocks away for almost a year. I felt her excitement about moving into a new home and that made me excited too. I wanted her to put me down, so I could explore the wide, empty lot, but she said she had to hold me because there might be nails on the ground.

Out of all the things I could possibly remember at two, those are my main memories.

And there’s one more thing: Star Wars.

I remember sitting in a small movie theater with my parents in Taft watching Return of the Jedi. It’s where I first witnessed Ewoks fighting Stormtroppers on the planet of Endor. I can still recall where the theater was located.

Over 30 years later, I went back to that same place with my wife and looked at the building where I remembered the theater once was, and sure enough, we could see how the old building used to be a small theater. This was support for me that my memory was accurate.

Along with many of the totally rad kids who grew up in the 80s, Star Wars was my thing. There was He-Man, Ghostbusters, ThunderCats, Transformers, and The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but Star Wars stood above them all, maybe because it was a live action film instead of a cartoon, or maybe because it was just epic.

I can’t count how many times I acted out each adventurous scene in my childhood. I can still picture myself in my front yard walking to the end of an imaginary plank as Jabba waits for me to jump to my death. I nod to Lando and then signal to R2-D2 before I lever myself off the plank into a flip as I catch my lightsaber from R2 and save the day.

It was clear how Luke Skywalker was able to do all that he did—the force.

Being newly married, my wife and I drove out to Taft to watch The Last Jedi when it came out; it was sort of a trip down memory lane. We watched it in the ancient Fox Theater, the largest and now only theater in Taft.

The main theater screen has a classic early 20th century style to it with a velvety blue, oval shape ceiling that gently glows with mysterious lighting. The seats are small, the carpet is patterned, and the screen is on a stage with red curtains folded to the sides.

The reviews of the new Star Wars film were critical, specifically relating to how the force was used by the iconic characters. Recurring social media comments questioned how the force was used differently than in the original three movies. I was bothered by this too at first until I read a comment that explained how the force didn’t operate by a set of systematic formulas, and just because we didn’t see the force displayed in particular ways in the original movies doesn’t mean it can’t happen in the newer ones.

The force can be used differently by different people at different times in different situations, and yes, even in different movies.

Now I know the force isn’t meant to represent the Holy Spirit; George Lucas is not C.S. Lewis by any means. At times, we may in our own minds limit the Holy Spirit to only what we read in Acts. But keeping the Bible as the foundation, let’s be open to all the greater things than these moments the Holy Spirit is capably of doing.

Let’s not put God in a box.

Let’s not create formulas to attempt to predict his actions.

He’s so much bigger than us.

He’s not limited to the past.

And just how the use of the force in The Last Jedi surprised its audience, God can still surprise his followers today with how he uses his Holy Spirit.

We can’t even imagine the great things he can still do with us—greater things than these.

The First Guitar

I was wearing a vertically striped, white collar neck shirt tucked into white baggy jeans, hair sprayed into the perfect position that Vanilla Ice would have been proud of, with shiny braces and blue rubber bands around them on my teeth. It was the mid-90s, and I was a complete dork, but I oddly fit in with all my awkward friends in junior high.

I had just arrived with my family at my nanny and papa’s house, and they were showing us their prized purchases from yard sales that morning. My papa could really wheel and deal at yard sales, making permanent purchasing decisions over mere nickels.

This time he had purchased a red electric guitar with an amp that was almost as tall as me. He couldn’t really play it, but he thought about learning. He gently put the worn strap on over his shoulder and meticulously adjusted the amp’s silver knobs to a safe volume before he sat down to pluck out a few random notes on the higher strings.

Then he told me to try, and of course, I did—eagerly. I held the guitar in my lap and accidentally strummed the strings too hard as my entire family jumped a little from the powerful amp. I gave the guitar back to my papa.

Once the yard sale treasures were no longer the topic of conversation, I put on the retro red and sneaked away into the kitchen. I loosened the strap, so the guitar rested against my lower hip, and I looked into the reflection of my grandparent’s glass refrigerator.

There I was with such an instrument of awe. I liked how it looked on me. I liked how I felt holding it.

The guitar would eventually become the vehicle that would take me to many different stages in various bands up and down California and allow me to be a very small part of local rock’n roll history—the part that people enjoyed but seldom remembered after the bands’ stickers peeled off, t-shirts faded, and CDs became obsolete.

It would bring together different young personalities to form unique lifelong friendships and sacred memories between band mates and groupies.

It would be the tool that aided in countless private worship sessions in a teenager’s bedroom, attended only by a melancholy boy confused by a changing world as invisible angels observed quietly.

And as that boy grew, it would be the instrument that helped lead many different groups of people in holy songs until the Lord.

My nanny walked into the kitchen and saw me standing in the reflection. “You like the guitar?”

With wide open eyes and a mouth too excited to fully articulate an answer, I just said, “Yeah, I do” in a simple nod.

When my junior high graduation approached, my mom asked me what I wanted as a graduation gift. Of course, I told her a guitar.

Now that was an expensive gift for a young teenager to ask for, but my mom drove me all around town researching different guitars and prices and eventually found one used in the newspaper with a case and small amp included. It was in excellent condition and red like my papa’s.

That summer I was planning to get ahead and take a math class in summer school, but I ended up quitting halfway. I spent the rest of my summer watching Green Day, Deftones, and Collective Soul music videos on MTV, trying my best to mimic their blurry fingers flow up and down the guitar neck. My papa took me once a week in the evening to some beginning guitar lessons at the local music store.

Although my parents so selflessly bought me my first guitar and my grandparents generously paid for beginning lessons, I see music as a graceful gift from the Lord.

It’s a gift that creates a special connection with people—such a connection that it’s even used as a way to worship God.

It’s meant to be personal, authentic, raw—from the heart.

Play it passionately.

Listen to it fervently .

Sing it from within.

Use music, and use it well; it’s a gift.