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.

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.

The Christmas Star

It was the fourth of December—a wintry day for me as I walked home from my 6th grade classroom in my baggy stonewashed jeans and white Stussy sweatshirt. It was slightly foggy still from the morning, and on that stroll home, I remember observing the front lawn Christmas decorations of neighbors and the hanging lights waiting for the night, so they could shine brightly.

My cozy house was mostly decorated already by my mom, and I enjoyed the free time I often had as a child. I was lying on the couch in the living room with the television on softly as I observed the hanging Christmas carousel horses that hung over our fireplace and played music when you switched them on.

The home phone rang. I heard my mom cry out from my parents’ bedroom.

My dad came in and told me someone just called and said my aunt Lana was dead.

I looked at the nativity set on the curio cabinet. I walked over and picked up the baby Jesus figure out of the manger, held it up, and whispered, “Please God, no.”

My family decided it would be best to rent a cabin that Christmas up in the mountains near Frazier Park; it was too much being in a place filled with memories of Christmases before.

About a week after Lana’s death, I was at my nanny and papa’s house with my parents and sister. My nanny became overwhelmed with hurt and sadness and walked out the front door crying. My papa quickly followed. We then all followed her out into the cold.

We stood there for some time in the front yard. Hurting together. In the cold. With no words to say.

I just stood looking down, not knowing what to even hope for now—no light up ahead.

Then my Nanny pointed up and said, “Look at that star. It’s getting bigger.”

We looked up at it, and sure enough, it was getting bigger before our very eyes. Not a plane or helicopter—it was most definitely a star.

It continued to grow.

Bigger and bigger.

My family stood in awe as we looked upon the largest star we ever saw in our lives. My nanny said, “God just told me that Lana is with him in heaven.”

An unexplainable peace came over all of us, and all tears ceased.

The star then regressed back into its regular size until it vanished among the twinkling chilly sky.

We went back into the warmth of the house amazed by what we just saw—something supernatural.

I remember my nanny telling me she saw the star again about a week later in the same exact way, and with it, she had peace again.

A few days before Christmas, we were all at the cabin my family rented. My sister and I found a little snowy hill to sled down, and we even built a snowman with my dad as my nanny watched from the patio with my mom and papa all bundled up in warm clothes.

That Christmas Eve, the reality of my aunt not being there with us hit hard, especially for my nanny. Lana would never be with us again; Christmas would never be how it once was.

Dabbing her eyes with a napkin until it was rolled up in a little ball, my nanny eventually walked outside in the nighttime snow with my papa shortly behind her.

We didn’t know what to do; we were all hurting too. Then, in her serious voice, we heard my nanny call out, “It’s happening again! Come look, the star’s back!”

I was looking at it, but it was hard to believe what I was seeing—the same star growing right before our eyes again. Brighter and brighter!

And then… peace.

Tears ceased.

And our Christmas Eve was there.

In the snow.

With the Christmas star.

A miracle.

Looking up, my nanny commented, “God just said we’ll see the star no more.” It shrunk back to its regular size and vanished into the hundreds of other stars in the crisp, cold, Christmas sky.

We went back into the cabin, not happy, but not without hope either; we knew God was there with us in our sorrow.

Christmas is often a time of sorrow because the people in life change, leave, and even die.

The snowy scenes on Christmas cards no longer mirror the present. Our busy, unsure, messy lives don’t feel like the Christmas endings in Hallmark specials. The songs of the season are beautiful, but they almost feel out of place.

And that’s okay because there’s still hope because there is Christ.

There’s still joy because there is Christ.

There’s still life because there is Christ.

The shepherds understood this as they left their regular routine to worship a child in a manger. They spent Christmas glorifying and praising God.

With all the decorating the house and putting up a tree, driving around looking at wonderful displays of lights, and watching classic Christmas movies, let’s not forget to glorify and praise the one who brought us hope. The one who enables us to have joy. The one who promises everlasting life.

Remember those past Christmases. Cherish them. Even miss them. But glorify and praise God.

Praise him like the shepherds. Praise him like the angels. Praise him like the wise men. Hold Christ up high in this cold wintry season, and glorify his name, just like the first Christmas.

The Lord’s Closet

I was in the 6th grade when my family was attending our little charismatic church. It was a good place to get loved on, but the theology was sometimes lacking. That’s always an interesting balance with churches.

Good theology but lackluster worship.

Good theology but apathetic people.

Good theology but dry pastor.

If you can find a church that’s mostly doctrinally Biblical and has powerful worship with people who are eager to build community and an enthusiastic pastor, then you have found the church version of a unicorn.

Some Sunday mornings, I wasn’t feeling the best and wouldn’t want to go church. I would tell my dad I felt sick, but his answer was always the same: “If you aren’t feeling well, the best place for you to be is at church.”

The church was big on placing people directly into ministry right after they accepted Christ.

Seriously, I had a youth leader who was still in rehab. On his first day teaching, the slouching, moustache-wearing man said through a mumble of a voice, “I don’t really know the Bible, but I believe in Jesus. I figured we can learn the Bible together.”

A few Sundays later, he didn’t show up to teach the group. I never saw him again.

I don’t recall anyone on the church’s staff having any formal theological training. The senior pastors consisted of a husband and wife duo. The ministers of the healing ministry were both on disability. The worship team took anyone who was able or who wasn’t able to play an instrument. But the entire church really loved on everyone who walked through the front doors, and they believed in those people too—enough to give them a chance at what they felt God was calling them to do.

My mom used to have yard sales to try to get rid of all our extra stuff we didn’t need, including older clothes. She noticed that clothes would only sell for mere cents at yard sales, and people would try to deal you down to a dime or even a nickel. To her, it wasn’t worth the hassle. If she gave the clothes away to charity organizations, they would mark up the price and sell it.

My mom wanted a way to give the clothing away for free to help those who were really in need. She talked to the pastors at the church and came up with a unique plan.

Instead of trying to sell used clothing to people or giving it away to organizations to sell, the entire church would put their used clothing together and create a place where people who were in need could go and take whatever fit them for free.

My mom did some research and called around town to find some old, circular clothing racks. They were the industrial size ones used in large retail stores—the kind little kids like to hide inside while their parents are shopping.

She cleared out our three-car garage and filled the entire space with racks full of donated clothing.

Since it was completely free and open to anyone to come in to get clothes, my mom came up with a fitting name for the ministry: The Lord’s Closet.

I remember all kinds of people coming to our house during that time. Single mothers with young children. Recovering addicts trying to find something nice for a job interview. Old widowed women who wanted to dress up again in something new. People would leave so thankful and excited, and it was completely free.

The world teaches us to find ways to make money off of people.

The Bible teaches us to find ways to help take care of people.

Of course, in careers and business, we need to charge people for a service or a product, but sometimes it is good and right to just give something for free. And when we give freely under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we become a little more like Christ.

I was one of the fortunate ones who grew up with a Christ-like example in my life who eagerly looked for ways to help care for people and who gave freely—my mom.