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.

 

Underneath the Foam

I really don’t know how it happened, but while in college, I somehow became the lead singer in an indie rock band. Okay, I’ll admit it, some people called it an emo band.

We called it Quantum Theory.

Quantum Theory was a three piece with me playing lead guitar and singing, my buddy Jason on bass, and my old drumline friend Russ on drums. I think we were a mix between Smashing Pumpkins and Jimmy Eat World—or at least we wanted to be. We practiced weekly in my parents’ living room and carried our gear in the back of Russ’s little, blue pickup.

I think we only lasted about eight months until Russ got a girlfriend, and Jason got a better job and started working more hours.

I wasn’t too upset about Quantum Theory breaking up. Using the vernacular of our peer rockers and concert goers, we “kind of sucked.”

While playing in the band, Russ attended the same university as me. After classes one day, we both found a cardstock flier on our campus advertising a foam dance party at our local convention center. It was a vibrant flier with a flashy design. The convention center was a relatively safe place; I mean they have the Ice Capades there, so how bad could a foam dance party be?

Quantum Theory didn’t have a concert that weekend, so Russ and I decided to check it out. We parked, walked up, paid our semi expensive ticket (for college students), and went in.

The dance floor was somewhere under the four feet of white foam that built up within the circular wall that surrounded the silhouettes of dancing bodies.

Russ and I pushed through the sweaty bodies as foam slowly soaked through our clothes and hung from our arms.

Music of low bass beats and cheap lyrics fell upon us from the hanging speakers and strobe lights.

Some rode each other to the music. Some floated through the foam hungry for some kind of connection. Some danced with themselves with hands waving in the air.

Only a few minutes went by until Russ and I decided it was time to leave.

We went to the restroom to attempt to wipe off as much foam as possible, suspicious of what could be happening underneath the white blanket.

After becoming a teacher some years later, I was sitting in a drug training class for high school teachers. The police officer educated us on modern drugs, local gangs, and teen sex. I was hoping to hear about rock’n roll too.

Honestly though, out of all the millions of teacher training workshops I’ve taken, this one was the most interesting. My experience in illegal activities was lacking to say the least.

Going through pot, cocaine, and meth, the police officer eventually came to ecstasy. He explained how it was the ravers’ drug of choice. His vocal tone was blunt and combative, which was a contrast from the sympathetic and political teacher tones I was used to at trainings.

He spoke out, “The street name for ecstasy is E, and it’s an easy access drug for students. They even publicly advertise it on party fliers.” He began clicking through some photos that were projected onto the screen from his PowerPoint presentation, which had the basic, default, striped blue and white background. “You see the little E in the background. You have to sometimes search for it but that means that ecstasy will be available at the event.”

The officer clicked on to a flier that looked familiar to me. “See the little E in the top left circle? This was a foam dance party that took place a few years ago here at the convention center. What they do is fill up the dancefloor with foam so people can easily pass on drugs and have sex without been seen.”

My eyes became larger.

“At these events, we always send in some undercover officers to try to catch the big dealers. I was one of the officers here, and I have some video from it to share.”

I sunk inches into my seat.

As the teachers and I watched the familiar night replay on the big screen, I anxiously looked for Russ and me. Hundreds of blurry faces and dark silhouettes. No sight of us. The video eventually ended. I was safe.

The other teachers were in shock that such an event went on in their town. I turned to a teacher next to me and whispered, “I was there.”

She just laughed and said, “You’re funny.” She then looked back to the screen, prompting me to pay attention.

I feel that’s just like life. We don’t know all the bad going on under the surface. We also don’t know the good that’s going on in bad places.

Russ and I weren’t there with evil intentions. We thought it was going to be a fun dance—like the ones in high school. Maybe we would meet some new friends or even a nice girl. But in all places with humans, there are going to be people with good and bad plans in mind.

Let us always check ourselves to be the ones with plans of good intentions for ourselves and others. Let us be bringers of hope and be discouraged in the darkness. Let us be led by God’s Holy Spirit to go where he has called us and to leave when he tells us.

Let us have pure minds and selfless hands.

Even underneath the foam.

 

 

Becoming a Drummer

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

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

Awesome. Cool. Sick. Rad. Amazing.

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

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

I think I can do that, I thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were drummers.

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

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

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

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

I was a drummer, at least on paper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For a long while.

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

I never participated in the spring performances.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

The Healer

I was in the first or second grade when I first remember going to the eye doctor. I don’t remember the details, but the optometrist told my mom that my light blue eyes were so sensitive to sunlight that I needed to wear sunglasses whenever I go outside.

My mom, of course, took me directly to the glasses store and bought me a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses. I wore them for about a week, and that was the end of those glasses.

In the 5th grade, I went to the eye doctor again. After having me read countless letters, the optometrist blurred the screen and said to my mom, “You see this right here?” He pointed to the screen. “This is how your son sees.”

My mom started crying at the realization of my horrible vision. Once again, she went directly to buy me a pair of glasses, and I wore them for about a week at school, maybe less.

I could get by sitting close to the board in most classrooms at school, and I found ways of just getting by at lunch and during recess. But I would wear my glasses at home.

A few weeks ago, I got a quick giggle when I came across an old photo of me behind my drum set with those golden clunkers weighing heavily on my face.

I just hated wearing glasses. They felt wrong to me. I knew many people wore them and even liked them, but I never accepted them as part of myself. When I had the chance, I would remove them for photos, and if I drew myself, there would be no sign of glasses.

One average day in the 7th grade, I was sitting on the couch watching TV, and I overheard my mom talking on the cordless phone to a friend from our old charismatic church about a healer coming in from out of town for a special Wednesday night service.

I liked the people at my old church; they were kind and loving. You got hugs from everyone. The sermons might not have always been biblically strong, but you could always count on the hugs.

I’m not for sure why, but I asked my dad privately if he would take me to the Wednesday night service to see the healer. Maybe it’s because I had previously expressed to my mom how I never wanted to be the kind of boys at church who sat in the front pews and seemed to cry in some dramatic worship performance every Sunday morning. As a young pre-teen, I wanted to be many things in life, but not one of them.

My father agreed to take me when he got home from work, and we drove across town together. I pretended to only be curious about hearing what the speaker had to say.

But that wasn’t the case. I read, heard, and even believed that God could heal. If there was any chance to have my vision restored, I was going to give this healing stuff everything I had.

We walked into an embrace of hugs and authentic smiling faces. People there were really so kind. Then the worship service started with the healer up on the stage.

I’m not really the singing type of guy in church, but I sang that Wednesday night. I sang every song, making sure I didn’t miss a word. I might have even lifted my hands–I’m not sure. What I am sure about is that I didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize any chance of my eyes being healed. I cleared my mind and believed with all my might that I would be healed.

No one was going to be able to tell me that I didn’t have enough faith or didn’t worship God sincerely enough.

After a good 40 minutes of worship songs, the healer began his routine. He told us that God had given him the gift of healing. He explained that we could be healed if we had enough faith and truly believed. He quoted memorized scripture. Then he invited us to come down if we wanted healing.

A crowded line down the center isle appeared instantly, and I watched with my dad from a pew as people began to be healed.

People were healed from headaches, anxiety, back pains, bad dreams, tumors that they didn’t know they had, and many other things that were all really unfalsifiable.

My situation was clear. If I could see without my glasses, I was healed. If I still needed my glasses to see, then I wasn’t.

I reminded myself of everything that the healer said. I pushed out every ounce of doubt in my mind. I felt the rim of my glasses on my face and told myself this would be the last time I would ever need to wear them, and then I stood up to go stand in line.

A faithful and hopeful boy.

Doing his best to believe with all his heart.

When my turn in line came, the healer asked me what I wanted healing for. I told him about my horrible eye vision and how I wanted God to heal my eyes. The worship music continued as the healer spoke in tongues as he placed his hands on my temples and began to pray. After reciting a few Bible verses and praying some more, he finally declared that I was healed.

The people in the congregation hollered out praises that were mixed with the sound of a tambourine and music. I turned to walk back down that center isle believing with all my might that what the healer said was true.

After a few steps, I finally began to try to focus on something far away, but all I saw was a blur. But I didn’t put on my glasses because I didn’t want to doubt.

I sat during the remainder of the worship service pushing myself to believe I could see, but the fact that the healer appeared as nothing more than a blur on the stage was beginning to wear on me.

When the friendly congregation finally started gathering their purses and Bibles to begin their exiting round of hugs, I was forced to come to the truthful conclusion that I had not been healed.

Service was now over.

Disappointment.

“Are you ready to go?” my patient father asked.

“One moment,” I responded and boldly walked back up that center isle and asked the healer why my eyes weren’t healed?

He replied, “Well son, sometimes it takes God a few days to complete a healing.”

He might as well said, “Well son, I’m a complete fake,” or “Well son, I’m really spiritually confused.”

Riding home with my understanding father, I felt a little like a fool, but I was fine. I wanted to, at least once in my life, give the whole charismatic healing thing one sincere chance. And I did.

Now let me clarify, I do believe God can heal, but his ways aren’t our ways. He can’t be placed in a box or be assigned to some specific formula for miracles. He’s far too big for that.

In my life I’ve seen some cases of church show business, but I’ve also seen a good handful of undeniable miracles. Even as I’m typing this, I have 20/20 vision, unaided by any glasses or contacts. So God did have a plan for my eyes to be healed, but it was different than what I had planned.

 

Childhood Home

There’s something special about one’s childhood home. I was born in Bakersfield, California. When I was two, my parents moved out to Derby Acers. Just to give you an idea of this area, some people called it “Dirty Acers.” But to me it was home, and a wonderful home at that.

My parents were in their very early twenties when they bought a brand new, double-wide mobile home and placed it on a quarter acer of land. They put up a nice fence and divided the backyard for a horse corral. I remember having a swing set, a tree to climb in, a little area designated for our doughboy pool, an orchid for my mom, a long, extended drive to skateboard down, and still plenty of room for a young boy’s invisible adventures. It was in that backyard that my best friend Matt and I fought off alien soldiers who hovered over us in a giant flying saucer. Other days we were fighting off medieval warriors who were invading our castle as I was a knight and Matt was a wizard.

A dog named Boy barked in excitement at the imaginary scenes as my mom baked a cake inside waiting for my dad to get home from work.

I lived in that house until my family moved to Bakersfield at age 10, so the majority of my innocent childhood was spent there.

It really was a perfect place to grow up as a kid. I left my bike in the front yard, and there was never a thought about someone stealing it. Doors were often left open for a sweet breeze, and most of the time they were unlocked. We had horses, cats, bunnies, dogs, chickens, a pig, and three-wheelers.

The foothills and mountains that surrounded the valley were close and always clear, and there was something special about the sunset that fell down over them. There was time then too. Time to watch cartoons. Time to play outside. Time to stare at my mother as she made dinner or organized her records and folded laundry. Time to wait on the front porch to see if I could spot my dad’s work truck driving home on the main road a few blocks away. Time to think.

My younger sister, Amber, was about seven years younger than me. Since we moved to Bakersfield when I was nine, and she was around three, she didn’t get to experience the same childhood I did.

A few years ago, when I was in my early thirties, and she in her twenties, we made plans to grab lunch as we tried to do every few weeks. Christmas was approaching, and we were looking for some place special to eat. I thought up the idea of driving out to Taft for lunch and another 15 minutes to Derby Acers to show her where she first lived. I was surprised that she wanted to join me on this adventure. She had recently gotten engaged, and we would get to use the long drive to catch up.

The road went from straight, long lanes to hilly roads and then to a small two-lane road surrounded by oilrigs and foothills. Turning into our, I guess you could call it a neighborhood, the road faded to dirt. My sister jerked around in my truck as we went over the uneven dirt.

We drove past my old best friend’s house, Matt, and then turned left. There in the middle of the dirt road, I stopped in reverence to show my sister her first home.

After a few seconds of silence and an odd look on my sister’s face, she said, “Why did Mom and Dad live here?”

I looked to examine my childhood home. The fence had fallen. The grass has turned to dirt. The orchid was gone to just an empty dry space with scattered weeds. The pool has vanished. No dog barked eagerly to see me. It was a pathetic sight.

I tried to explain to Amber what it was once like—the fine details of every bit of energy that Mom and Dad put into it to make it a fine home for their two children. But then I realized something.

It was more accurate in my memory than it was in real life. What now stood wasn’t my childhood home, for it was gone forever.

Or maybe, it was forever saved in my memories, where it will always be real.

That’s the moment I understood that the past can’t be revisited in real life but only in the heart.

I looked at my sister. Graduated from college. Engaged. Grown. Accomplished. Faithful. Kind. Wise. She is what I still have from that past. Not some house.

We drove to Taft and ate at a Mexican food restaurant. It was mostly empty inside. There was a huge Christmas tree with colorful lights across from our table. My sister and I laughed and smiled as we told stories and revisited jokes while eating our food. And I enjoyed the present before me—my grown little sister who would only hold the same last name as me for a few more months.

Let’s be thankful for the past and hold it dearly in our hearts, but let’s be thankful for all God’s given us in the present and never neglect for a moment what we have now because in time, it too will be gone.

Last Dance

lady-in-red

In normal high school experiences, the only thing that is worse than being dumped by a wonderful person is having to break up with a wonderful person. That was me during my junior year. She was a great girl—pretty, smart, clean, classy, but we just had different missions in life. I felt that I had a different calling than she did, so during my junior year, I had to decide to do one of the most difficult things ever; I had to leave someone who loved me crying on her front yard after I took her home after school, as I drove off alone.

Don’t worry. She’s fine now. She has a beautiful family and a good career.

But back to the past, it was towards the end of my junior year in high school, and the prom was approaching. This would be the first high school dance I would go to without my ex-girlfriend. She already had her date, a decent guy.

It hurt in a way. I understood everything. It all made sense. But it still hurt.

I knew what I had to do. It’s what any teenage guy would do in high school. I would ask the hottest girl I knew to be my date. Someone who would be the type of girl to wear a blazing red, short dress. Someone who would latch onto my arm long enough, so I could walk through those huge, double doors of the prom’s entrance to have my ex see me for just a moment and miss me.

Now I thought, where would I find such a girl?

My youth group, of course.

I asked her with a folded note during a Wednesday night service, back before text messaging. She happily accepted. I’m still not sure if it was because of me or because she went to another school and wanted to be allowed to attend my school’s prom, which was on the opposite side of town.

Bringing this girl to prom wasn’t purely selfish. I was hoping I would find something amazing about her and that she would win me over, like one of those 80’s movies or something like that.

Prom night finally came, and with the financial help of my generous grandparents, we arrived in a limo. She wore a short, red dress and had taken on the essence of stereotypical, high school beauty. We walked in those double doors, and she was latched on my arm. The music vibrated through the souls of our shoes as our eyes looked up to be caught by the flashing strobes. My school’s ASB has once again transformed a regular building hall into something quite magical.

My date and I quickly found my group of friends as the guys lit up in surprise as they set their eyes upon my mysterious date. Then something happened that I’ll probably always be unsure about. My ex-girlfriend walked up to my date and said something before walking away angrily. My date’s mouth dropped in awe.

“What?” I asked.

“She just called me a skank!” my date said in her most high, feminine voice.

“She did?”

“Yes, she did!”

Now that was very out of character for my ex-girlfriend, but I honestly, I laughed a little in my mind, and maybe a small smirk broke through onto my face. The night was going just as planned, which is odd in life.

Just then a popular song came on, and my friends eagerly rushed closer to the center of the dance floor.

“I told one of my friends that I would dance with him for one dance since I’m at his school. Can I go find him to dance with him, so I can get that over with, and then we can dance for the rest of the night together?” my date so innocently asked.

“Sure, that’s fine with me,” I sent her off into the dark, teenager abyss of moving bodies.

I wasn’t really bothered by her request because I honestly just wanted to dance with my own friends. Most of them only brought friends as dates, so they could dance with others.

Half an hour went by. Then a full hour. Two. Three. Still no sign of my prom date. Someone asked if I knew where she was. I didn’t. Maybe she was nearby camouflaged with the other countless short, red dresses that moved around, near, and on sweaty guys. Someone else asked if I thought she was okay? “I’m sure she’s fine,” I answered.

I continued to dance with my friends and tried to pretend that I was having just as good of a time as I did at every other school dance. But I wasn’t.

I wasn’t second guessing my decision of breaking up with my ex, but I was sad. Maybe mourning in a way. And I was alone. The familiarity of the environment made me remember first dancing with her my freshmen year, and how I felt like the king of the world back then, when everything was still brand new. I gave her up. Now she was dancing with someone else, looking happy and pretty as ever.

Eventually, all my friends were coupled up with the help of the mood of a magical environment. I awkwardly stood there by myself. I watched time fade by like the last two years of my high school life. I felt like the fool. People started noticing that I was alone, and it was weird, so I had to go.

But I had nowhere to go. I couldn’t just leave my date, although she left me. I looked for a hideout, some place unnoticed safe—the restroom.

Surrounded by the cold, tall, echoing walls of the boy’s restroom, I could still hear the songs vibrating through the floors in muffled words of bass. My feet were now sore from my dress shoes—maybe tired. I looked into the scratched mirror and examined myself. Sharp dressed in a pressed shirt. A red tie to match a missing date. Hair still perfectly styled. But alone.

What this going to be my future now? Were the best days of high school already behind me? I was once the school’s vice-president for two years in a row. But not anymore.

I now second guessed my decision of breaking up with her. I felt wholeheartedly that it was the right thing to do at the time. I prayed through it. I felt confirmation.

I looked back into the mirror.

“What’s up with this, God? This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. I don’t even know.”

I heard the bass under the souls of my shoes start a new song—Lady in Red, the 90’s slow song that became the signature last dance at all my school’s dances. I gave a wry smile and thought how pathetic was I to hide out during my high school prom. I remembered who I was.

A child of God.

Someone bought with a great price.

Someone loved unconditionally.

I straightened up my posture and walked out of that restroom with a confident smile to see my world turning together in slow motion to the magical mood of the music.

I stood there hoping for a miracle. Waiting. Even enjoying the happiness of others.

Then, I felt a tap on my shoulder.

I turned around to see Britney, a friend of mine. Not anyone I ever flirted with. Not anyone I ever considered dating, but just a friend. She said, “I thought you might be feeling along there, stranger. Want to dance.”

“Thanks.”

We slow danced together at a friendly distance for the rest of that song, and I wasn’t alone.

Although we are friends on social media, Britney and I don’t talk much. We don’t comment on each other’s posts really or even “like” each other’s photos, but there will always be an element of gratitude connected to any thought of her. And although there have been many forgotten dances with many different girls, that one dance would never be forgotten.

After the lights came on and people rushed to find their purses and jackets, I finally found my date. She told me some dramatic story about searching all over for me. I didn’t believe her, but I wasn’t upset. I knew she wasn’t the girl for me.

I really didn’t give her much thought after that night, but I did think about Britney. I recalled how she was involved at her church. I remember visiting her youth group from time to time, and she was always there and involved with something. I can never remember hearing her say anything bad about anyone, not even once. She was never the center of attention. She mostly just blended in, but she always seemed faithful in all that she did.

I believe wholeheartedly that she walked in the Spirit. I believe the Holy Spirit gave her discernment to see what I was feeling. I can imagine her notice my out of character prom date. I can picture her watching me glance through the crowd at my ex-girlfriend every now and then. I can see her searching for me during the last dance of the night and feeling a bit of relief when she found me.

We know the Spirit leads us when we’re seeking after others instead of ourselves. When we dance with people in this crazy thing called life. When we embrace those who are hurting and alone.