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.

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.

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.

 

Lost in a Grocery Store

lost-in-a-grocery-store

I often hear parents talk about how rambunctious their grown children were when they were young—how they would have their hands into everything that wasn’t theirs. How they would talk a stranger’s ear off. How they would break down and throw a fit in public when they didn’t get their way.

Honestly, my parents didn’t have these problems with me, not to say I didn’t come with my own share of unique problems.

I was shy. I had some unclear speech disorder that wasn’t properly diagnosed. I was an only child for seven years, until my sister came along. Yeah, I was that kid who played the first Nintendo Entertainment System and only had a few select friends who played with me. And the rest was all imagination.

I remember being about four years old and walking around the small town grocery store with my dad. Our home was about 15-20 minutes from the well-lit store, and it was a happy occasion to get to go with Dad for a dinner run. This was a time when stores were a more decorated for every holiday—individual and custom decorations for each season. Every once in a while, I would even get to pick out a toy from the isle across from the cereal. I don’t think my parents will ever realize how a five dollar piece of plastic would make my day.

So there I was walking through the store with wide eye wonder holding my dad’s hand. Then all of a sudden, I looked up and the hand I was holding was not my dad’s. This was terrifying for a four-year-old. He was a complete stranger, and I didn’t know where my dad was. My young brain couldn’t comprehend how this had happened. One minute, I was with my dad, and the next, a perfect stranger.

The older man looked down at me and said, “You’re a cute, little guy, but you’re not mine.” I turned all over to finally find my dad standing nearby and quickly reached out for his hand—embarrassed, frightened, confused; I wanted to cry, but I wasn’t one of those kids.

As an adult now, occasionally I’ll see small children who lose their mom or dad at a grocery store. A painful terror comes over them, and after a few seconds of desperately looking all around and realizing the scary truth of their situation, their eyes begin to water, their lips quiver, and then they cry. A loud cry from someplace in pain. Sometimes a scream, as all the other children continue walking quietly holding their parent’s hand, wondering what’s wrong with that kid.

Sometimes I get discouraged being a believer in this modern world. I’m bombarded with so many anti-Christ statements, philosophies, and ideologies yelled from rooftops. I see them printed online, in magazines, in newspapers, on television, and cluttered all over social media. I start to think that the whole world holds these same views, while a few others and myself are the only ones who still attempt to have some sort of desire to follow Christ.

But I’ve learned this is not true. The church is well. The church is strong. The church is winning. This is because the church is God’s bride, and God’s faithful to his bride. And in the end, God wins.

This world is full of believers who seriously love the Lord. Famous rock stars, actors, writers, artists, athletes, politicians. They are all out there and living for the Lord.

But why can’t we hear them? Why don’t we hear true Christians proclaiming their beliefs all over the media?

Because they aren’t lost.

They are holding their father’s hand.

Children aren’t terrified when they have their father’s hand. Believers have a peace that the lost children don’t understand.

Lost children in this world cry. They shout out. They don’t understand. They are angry. They hurt others. They take, steal, lie. They are hurting. They do anything they can to help themselves because they are lost—without a father.

It’s sad really. So very sad.

When we see the lost world, let’s remind ourselves that we are not losing simply because we are quiet. Let’s remind ourselves that we aren’t alone just because other believers aren’t yelling out. We are just at peace holding our father’s hand—the very best place to be.