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. 

 

Greater Things than These

Return of the Jedi hit theaters in May of 1983 when I was two years old. Not too many people remember much about being two. I don’t either, but I do remember when my great grandfather died—sort of.

I remember driving home with my mom and nanny after his funeral in Bakersfield sitting in the back seat of the small car. I remember my nanny saying to my mom who was driving, “He really wasn’t all that great of a daddy” as her eyes were wet with grief.

Being so young, I was confused. I didn’t understand why she was crying if he hadn’t been a good daddy; my child size capacity of thinking was very limited.

I also remember my mother holding me as we looked at the open land in Derby Acers where our mobile home was going to be placed. We had been living in a trailer a few blocks away for almost a year. I felt her excitement about moving into a new home and that made me excited too. I wanted her to put me down, so I could explore the wide, empty lot, but she said she had to hold me because there might be nails on the ground.

Out of all the things I could possibly remember at two, those are my main memories.

And there’s one more thing: Star Wars.

I remember sitting in a small movie theater with my parents in Taft watching Return of the Jedi. It’s where I first witnessed Ewoks fighting Stormtroppers on the planet of Endor. I can still recall where the theater was located.

Over 30 years later, I went back to that same place with my wife and looked at the building where I remembered the theater once was, and sure enough, we could see how the old building used to be a small theater. This was support for me that my memory was accurate.

Along with many of the totally rad kids who grew up in the 80s, Star Wars was my thing. There was He-Man, Ghostbusters, ThunderCats, Transformers, and The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but Star Wars stood above them all, maybe because it was a live action film instead of a cartoon, or maybe because it was just epic.

I can’t count how many times I acted out each adventurous scene in my childhood. I can still picture myself in my front yard walking to the end of an imaginary plank as Jabba waits for me to jump to my death. I nod to Lando and then signal to R2-D2 before I lever myself off the plank into a flip as I catch my lightsaber from R2 and save the day.

It was clear how Luke Skywalker was able to do all that he did—the force.

Being newly married, my wife and I drove out to Taft to watch The Last Jedi when it came out; it was sort of a trip down memory lane. We watched it in the ancient Fox Theater, the largest and now only theater in Taft.

The main theater screen has a classic early 20th century style to it with a velvety blue, oval shape ceiling that gently glows with mysterious lighting. The seats are small, the carpet is patterned, and the screen is on a stage with red curtains folded to the sides.

The reviews of the new Star Wars film were critical, specifically relating to how the force was used by the iconic characters. Recurring social media comments questioned how the force was used differently than in the original three movies. I was bothered by this too at first until I read a comment that explained how the force didn’t operate by a set of systematic formulas, and just because we didn’t see the force displayed in particular ways in the original movies doesn’t mean it can’t happen in the newer ones.

The force can be used differently by different people at different times in different situations, and yes, even in different movies.

Now I know the force isn’t meant to represent the Holy Spirit; George Lucas is not C.S. Lewis by any means. At times, we may in our own minds limit the Holy Spirit to only what we read in Acts. But keeping the Bible as the foundation, let’s be open to all the greater things than these moments the Holy Spirit is capably of doing.

Let’s not put God in a box.

Let’s not create formulas to attempt to predict his actions.

He’s so much bigger than us.

He’s not limited to the past.

And just how the use of the force in The Last Jedi surprised its audience, God can still surprise his followers today with how he uses his Holy Spirit.

We can’t even imagine the great things he can still do with us—greater things than these.

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 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.

 

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.

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.