The Librarian

I was around eight years old, and it was about once a month that our teacher took us to the school’s library to check out a book. For me, this was an exciting time. Out of all the books in the entire library, I got to choose one to take home for an entire month.

But I couldn’t really read that well.

With my speech disorder, sounding out words didn’t really work (if it ever works). But I knew there was something valuable about them—stories.

I think Mr. Bo, the librarian, knew that too. He was an elderly man who shared a resemblance with Mr. Rogers, the children’s show host.

I distinctly remember him having our class all sit together on the carpet as he gently brought out a worn book that he treated like an old friend. He carefully held the green book and lightly turned each page as he read to us The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. He ended the story in a dry voice as he read about how all the boy wanted was to be with the tree and how the tree was happy. He slowly closed the book, sat it down on the table next to him, and patted it with his weathered fingers.

“Do you know what that book reminds me of?” he asked the class of children on the floor.

No one answered.

“My parents,” the old man said.

Being only a kid, I somehow knew that was a good book, and I also knew Mr. Bo was a good man.

For a number of months, I would always check out the same book. It was a large illustrated book of fairytales. To me, it was so much better than the other books because it contained multiple stories instead of just one.

While the students were allowed to look through all the books, I looked with them even though I knew I was going to renew the book of fairytales once again. Finally, I stood in line to have the book renewed.

When I placed the old book on the counter, Mr. Bo said, “This book is getting old, isn’t it?”

I nodded.

“An old book like this needs to retire to a special home where someone can take care of it? Would you want to take it home and take care of it?”

I smiled and shyly said, “Yes.”

Mr. Bo opened up the front cover and took out the library card covered with dated stamps. He then very carefully pulled out the cardholder that had been glued on the back of the front cover. He handed me the book and smiled.

At the end of the school year, my school held its end of the year awards assembly. My mom was in the back videotaping it with her large, rectangular, over the shoulder camcorder. I was just a regular kid, so I never got the best reader award or the best athlete award. I was always the good, quiet kid in class.

Towards the end of the awards assembly, the principal announced there was one more award that was very special. It was the library award, and only one student in the entire school would receive it.

Mr. Bo steadily made his way up the stairs.

My name was called.

I feel like Mr. Bo believed in me. He didn’t really know me. We never held a real conversation. But he saw something in me. And I saw something in him.

After I moved from that small town, I remember hearing that he passed away, and the school named the library after him.

I still have that old book of fairytales somewhere up in my attic safely stored away in a box. That collection of stories prepared me for the real stories I would encounter in life.

The stories I would experience, create, and tell.

Mr. Bo saw something in me and was a small part of my story although he never knew it. As leaders in this sometimes-confusing world, I hope we can see things in others. I pray that we can believe in people even after years of disappointment.

Let us be stories.

Judging People

For a while, I was into CrossFit. I discovered it at the perfect time in my life. I needed some new friends, and the people at my box were completely opposite of who I normally hung out with. They cussed, drank, went dancing together at local clubs, and were extremely healthy when it came to their eating habits. They were exciting and fun, and they seemed to like me.

One Friday night after a full week of working out at the box, we all went out for Italian food. Muscles were sore and still throbbing a little, but this was our celebration of an ending week.

For the normal American young adult, Italian food includes lots of noodles, creamy sauce, and bread. But for the crossfitter, it’s salad, water, and maybe a tea with no sugar. And you could expect this question with any mention of food: “Is it Paleo?”

Sitting at a large table with Italian music drowned out by the loud voices of the restaurant, I could barely recognize my CrossFit friends without their workout attire since they were wearing nice button-downs and dresses with hair gelled and makeup on. I quickly decided to not get the lasagna and soda that I really wanted. Instead, I would have a salad and tea like the rest of the group.

I was enjoying my meal and laughing at all the inside jokes and stories we retold that had accumulated from the last few months of CrossFit. Every now and then I would grab a fresh slice of white bread on the middle of the table, and when the server came to refill my ice tea, I would add another packet of sugar to keep it lightly sweetened.

My good buddy on my left turned to me and said, “You’re really enjoying that bread, man. If I ate bread like that, I would be huge.”

I didn’t take another slice.

Soon, the server refilled my tea again, and I added another packet of sugar.

My friend on my left said, “Are you getting any tea with that sugar?” and she laughed lightheartedly.

They were judging me. They were being legalistic in a way. They were trying to hold me to a higher standard of healthy living.

And I appreciated it.

Because they wanted me to be healthy like them.

Sometimes at church, people do the same thing. They make little comments about spiritual unhealthy lifestyles. They try to hold each other to a higher standard of healthy spiritual living.

But when it’s at church, people become furious and respond with, “How dare you judge me! Doesn’t the Bible say to never judge?”

There are clearly different types of judging. If I’m lost in an unfamiliar city and end up in a dark ally and see a man approaching me with a knife out, I’m going to make a judgement about him that he may not have the best of intentions. I could find out later that an independent film group was just filming a YouTube video, but I think making the judgement that there was a real threat would be the wise thing to do.

The type of judging the Bible teaches against is not discernment but condemnation. It is never my place to examine another person and condemn him or her to hell for all eternity. That’s not my call; that is wrong.

We should not live a life of condemnation if we are followers of Christ. We should not condemn others, and we should not condemn ourselves.

But we should be discerning, judging our surroundings and using the wisdom that God gives us to make the right decisions that help protect others and ourselves.

I want people to be discerning of my lifestyle. If I’m consuming pizza, donuts, and soda all day every day, what faithful friend would approve of such a lifestyle by saying nothing?

If I’m living in a way that is spiritually unhealthy, what faithful friend would approve of such a lifestyle by saying nothing?

I hope that I have faithful friends at church and not just at the CrossFit box.

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.

The Good Boss

A good indicator that you’re dating the wrong person (not necessarily a bad person) is a lack of peace in your life.

During my undergraduate years about midway through my job as a writing tutor on my college campus, I was dating the wrong person. She started out as a friend. Then, everyone kept telling me I should date her. I wasn’t really feeling it, but I eventually gave in and trusted the popular opinion, which can often be a dangerous decision.

My dating advice for young leaders is to never date for convenience. Never date because someone tells you to. Never date just because you can.

Also, don’t kiss dating goodbye or ever say that you’re dating Jesus—that’s just cheesy and weird.

Only date someone if there is something true inside of you that tells you with every ounce of energy you have that you cannot let this one go. Sadly at the time, I didn’t do this, and it caused a mess of problems that didn’t only negatively affect me but others as well.

Your decisions will always affect others.

During this time in college, I was finished with my general education classes and now focusing on my dual majors—English and psychology. Research Methods was the most infamous psychology class on campus, especially since the main professor who taught the class made all her students memorize the formulas and wouldn’t allow the use of calculators in class. I remember her saying that although we would eventually use calculators later, she wanted us to learn first by hand. Yay…

I loved the analytical and clinical part of psychology but not the part dealing with the laborious act of extracting, computing, and organizing data.

The second most difficult psychology class on campus was called Bio Psych, which typically contained half psych and half pre-med students. It consisted of the memorization of numerous detailed nerves, systems, and neurotransmitters, even though the professor even admitted most all her students forget everything they laboriously memorize in only a few months after the class.

After already dropping Research Methods the previous quarter, I ignored the advice of my peers and class advisor and took Research Methods and Bio Psych together along with a challenging linguistics class as well for my English major.

Three of the most difficult classes from two majors plus working every extra hour you could in the tutoring center plus late night arguments with a girl you aren’t even supposed to be dating equates to the perfect formula for failure.

After the first few exams, I had already begun failing Research Methods, and after a few more weeks, my grade in Bio Psych began to drop. I was trying to end the unhealthy relationship but that only seemed to cause more stress as friends divided and took sides, and some quickly moved in to try to date her.

With my social life turning into a civil war and my academic life on a downward spiral to destruction, my professional work life stayed strongest the longest, but it too eventually began to weaken as I began to arrive late to work.

My mind wasn’t focused. I would forget my essay in my printer and have to turn around to go back for it, or I would not remember what work schedule I was currently on that day. After a noticeable amount of tardiness, my boss, a professor named Cheryl, asked to have a talk with me.

I was sure I was going to get a lecture about responsibility. I was sure she was going to tell me about how she took a chance on hiring me in my inexperience and that I had disappointed her and let her down. I was sure she was going to discipline me somehow, maybe even let me go.

As soon as the other tutors left the tutorial center, leaving us alone, Cheryl asked, “Terry, are you doing okay?”

I was surprised by the question.

She quickly continued, “I know Terry, and I know his work ethic, so when I heard you’re coming late, I know something must be going on. Is everything okay?”

“Things are just kind of difficult right now.”

She bent over a little to look me in the eyes as her brunette bangs fell over her own a little and said, “Hey, you let me know if there’s anything I can do. If you ever want to talk, I’m here for you, okay?”

“Thanks, Cheryl, I’ll step it up for sure. I won’t be late again.”

“That’s good, Terry. But I’m more concerned about you. Can I really know that you’re okay?”

“Yes, I’ll be fine.”

“If you need anything, you let me know. I’m here for you.”

My boss could have handled that situation in so many different ways. I don’t think she was a Christian, but the love she demonstrated through her concern became an example that would replay in my mind over and over again when people would disappoint me.

When in a position of authority, I would remember Cheryl’s short conversation and respond differently.

That conversation helped teach me to come along side people when they’re failing and help them in their struggle.

It demonstrated to me how to truly care.

Sadly, when some people witness people failing, they see it as an open opportunity to kick them while they’re down.

I remember talking to my dad back then about my job as a writing tutor. He said, “You know, this is probably going to be one of your favorite jobs when you look back on it someday.”

And he was right.

In the old English tutorial center, surrounded by boxy computers against the walls, I built many relationships with all sorts of interesting students and got to know my professors more personally. I learned all about prepositional phrases, comma splices, subject/verb agreement, and sentence structure. I learned how to provide instruction to many different types of learning styles. I began my professional teaching practice in that small tutorial center.

But what I learned from Cheryl’s example has been the most valuable.

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.

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.