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.

Picking up the Crap

I had been teaching high school for about a year and was finishing jumping through the final hoops of California’s teaching credential program when I felt lead to start a Bible study. I wanted it to be something different—something authentic, even something revolutionary; I had high hopes.

I got permission from my parents to hold the Bible study in their nice backyard. My friends were excited about the idea. Chris, one of my best friends even decided to co-lead it with me. We settled upon the name Shepherds of the Lost with the goal in mind to build up disciples who would go back into the world and shepherd people who were lost. The Bible study took place on Friday nights. Since there wasn’t a lot to do in Bakersfield on Friday nights, we hoped that people might actually show up to the Bible study.

They did.

We eventually moved it into Chris’s house, and people from different churches and from all over town filled his living room once a week. I remember my Fridays always being chaotic as I would rush home after work for a quick shower to wake up a little from the exhausting week and then hurry to whatever place currently had the cheapest pizza specials to feed the group. After a few years of this full routine, Chris and I both felt the season of Shepherds of the Lost was over.

Looking back at those times now, I can recall mistakes I made as a leader. I never had any luck finding an older mentor to help guide me. And I looked for one too. It was just Chris and me figuring out what worked and what didn’t work through trial and error. After a while, I think we figured it out.

I’m thankful for that season, and I’m thankful for all those who had grace on the Bible study’s young leadership. Chris and I both learned invaluable lessons, and I believe some people were really encouraged during those Friday night moments of sitting on the carpet with open Bibles in laps and pizza in their stomachs.

Every now and then I’ll come across someone in town who wants to reminisce about the old Shepherds of the Lost days. I understand why. We had fun. After the actual study would be done, we found ways to entertain ourselves by watching hilarious YouTube videos, having spontaneous dance parties, prank calling our friends who didn’t show up, and snaking the cake, which is a term we came up with for eating an entire slice of cake in one bite.

There was a lot of special moments during those Friday nights—a lot of tearful conversations and togetherness as we shared our cheers and fears as the world slowly changed outside around us in those often confusing early twenties. We discussed and meditated on scripture. When in doubt in leading a Bible study, always study scripture; it will never return void.

The first lesson began even before the first Bible study began though. It was summer, and I remember nervously hashing out with anticipation a final list of all I needed to get completed before people would start arriving for that first night of Shepherds of the Lost.

I hurried home from one of my final credential classes to begin cleaning the bathroom, living room, and kitchen of my parent’s house to make it spotless. I then moved onto the backyard.

Bakersfield’s summer heat was not kind to me that day, and neither was my parent’s dog.

I took a shovel and started picking up dog crap.

I felt like in that moment the Holy Spirit showed me what leadership looks like. In my optimistic mind, leadership was a picture of me up on stage speaking into a microphone with everyone nodding in agreement, interested and encouraged.

Not really the case.

Ministry is messy because it always involves people, and people are messy.

If you’re involved in ministry long enough, you will be criticized on the most petty issues. People will blame you when things don’t go the way they want. You will put countless chunks of your life into work that will never be seen by those you serve. You will have to be a teacher, friend, problem-solver, counselor, coach, and Bible scholar all in the same hour. And you will make mistakes because you’re an imperfect sinner like everyone else.

But unlike everyone else, you pick up the crap.

And that’s okay because although it doesn’t seem to logically make sense, there is a special blessing that comes with ministry; there is a special blessing that comes with serving.

I think it’s because when we minister and serve we are the most like Jesus. We are truly Christians then.

Jesus was mistreated for leading, ministering, and serving us, but he did it anyways.

Because of his love.

He picked up our crap.