Baseball Cards and Suicides

Kneeling down to rip up a handful of grass.

Covering your face within your mitt to see how it would work as a mask.

Feeling the sun bake down upon your exposed forearms.

Watching anxious parents in the stands wonder why their children aren’t taking the game more seriously.

I was about six or seven, and this was tee-ball.

One year my team lost almost every game. The next, we came in second place.

I got to play second base, my favorite position, a little that year although another kid’s dad wanted him to play it, so it was a constant struggle to stay on second. But after every game, only two things really mattered.

My dad would let me buy a 50-cent pack of Topps baseball cards–you know, the ones with the hard piece of broken chewing gum. And I would also get to order a suicide.

In the 80s, there was a time when every little boy wanted a drink called a suicide. Even the name of the drink was rebellious. Parents didn’t order suicides. Grandparents didn’t. Only young boys and their fellow rambunctious teammate buddies ordered suicides–the 80’s sugar water of boisterous adolescence.

The man behind the food stand would mix each drink with zeal, adding Dr. Pepper as he slid the waxy paper cup to Pepsi and then to Root Beer and then adding dash of Sprite. My eager teammates kicked up dry dirt as they waited in line for the rewarding treat in the blistering heat.

I don’t really remember what it tasted like, but I know I liked it. After a few sips, I would get in the car with my dad and start looking through the new baseball cards hoping that I didn’t get too many doubles.

I wanted the full team of the Dodgers. Although I liked the White Sox and the Yankees too, the Dodgers were my team.

That bold blue.

That simple LA emblem.

I was thrilled when my parents surprised me with Orel Hershiser’s record breaker card one year on my birthday. I would place my cards out over the thick carpet of my bedroom floor to see the collected team together. The Dodgers winning the 1988 World Series highlighted that season of baseball card collecting.

Besides for a few years of tee-ball and then playing on my Bible study’s team at church almost 20 years later, that was all the ball I ever played. I had no hopes of earning a baseball scholarship, being a professional baseball player, or even coaching.

Although I try to make it out to a Dodgers game every other year or so and sit in the all-you-can-eat section, I don’t even watch very many games on TV.

I went out for baseball conditioning once in high school. I observed high school coaches cussing at the students for not being fast enough. I saw some students falling on their knees with vomit bursting out of their mouths after being pushed so hard. The fear in some of my fellow students’ eyes was alarming.

This wasn’t the baseball I remembered.

This wasn’t a game.

This wasn’t for me.

Then I remembered some of the tee-ball parents getting upset that their kid didn’t get enough time in their preferred position and them angrily yelling from the stands words that little kids shouldn’t hear.

But we, the ones who were actually playing the game, were happy just being out there and getting our baseball cards and soda afterwards.

I have to remind myself to strive for that childlike outlook on life again–to be so happy with such simple things.

Adults have forgotten how to play a game.

They care too much about winning and losing.

They think about suicide instead of drinking them.

They don’t chew broken bubblegum anymore.

There are definitely times in life where we need to be serious, but I feel being serious comes quite naturally to most of us.

We have to remind ourselves to have a playful outlook on life, with the faith of a child. We have to remember how to play a game.

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.

 

Driving Home

Foothills surrounded the dry two-lane road that led home.

Oil rigs heavily pumped as some just sat in awe of the red sky as it began to take down some of the warm air with it.

Telephone poles connected together by hanging cords that appeared to move up and down if you watched from lying down in the backseat.

Somewhere on that drive, there was a burned structure of a historic hotel still standing, which was the last evidence that the tiny town had once flourished with people.

But to me as a little boy, it still flourished. Maybe not with people, but with sunsets, nightly stars, pet animals, young friends, old family, trees to climb on, grass to roll on, and time to spare.

Driving home from Taft to my home in Derby Acers, I remember turning my head and looking up to see my dad. He was younger then—not that tired from a hard day’s work in the oilfields.

Paper bags of mixed groceries sat together in the back, and I held a Happy Meal box in my hands, eager to get to the toy Hot Wheel that hid under the warm fries I was so eager to throw into my mouth.

After looking at my dad, I turned back to watch the road like he was. He seemed to keep a safe eye on that road. Or maybe it was that red sky falling over those foothills beyond it he so intently observed.

It’s now that red sky I envision on that road when I think about my childhood.

The sunset and childhood are both so full of wonder and both so fleeing.

Back then, on that road, with my dad, there wasn’t poppy music to occupy the calm silence. There wasn’t handheld video game systems with new levels to conquer. There wasn’t cell phones, texting, or email to communicate with people who weren’t there.

It was just us.

And I called it home.

It’s where my mind meditated. It’s where my imagination grew. It’s where I learned how to be alive.

Often times it’s where I would like to go back. And in a way, maybe I can.

Maybe we can.

Maybe that’s what reconciliation is all about—riding in a car with our father, going where he takes us, and trusting he’s going to get us home.

 

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.

 

 

The Librarian

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

But I couldn’t really read that well.

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

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

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

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

No one answered.

“My parents,” the old man said.

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

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

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

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

I nodded.

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

I smiled and shyly said, “Yes.”

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

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

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

Mr. Bo steadily made his way up the stairs.

My name was called.

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

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

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

The stories I would experience, create, and tell.

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

Let us be stories.

Judging People

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t take another slice.

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

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

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

And I appreciated it.

Because they wanted me to be healthy like them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guidance in Becoming a Teacher

It was after school one common day in the 5th grade when my mother sat me down and said, “Someday you’ll have a job that you’ll go to everyday for the rest of your life. What would you want to do?”

I know the 10-year-old me probably answered by saying a Lego designer or professional toy tester, but I really did think about her question. After a good amount of time of serious thinking, I went back to my mom and told her that I wanted to help people.

I wanted to someday have a job where I would get to help people everyday.

She explained that doctors help people, so I decided to be a doctor.

There was a problem with this plan though. I fainted if I saw blood. I don’t expect people to really understand this, and I have forgotten the official name of this diagnosis, but it had nothing to do with fear. My body would involuntarily faint all on its own.

When I was in high school, I took a health class in summer school to get ahead in my units. My health teacher was a mostly bald, elderly man with translucent skin, a pot belly, and bony legs that surprisingly held him up. Since it was summer school, he wore shorts and a collar neck shirt.

One day while he was teaching on the cardiovascular system, he described to us how he had heart surgery before and how the doctors went through an artery in his leg to get to his heart. Seeing his protruding blue veins through his fishlike skin was just too much.

I became lightheaded and felt a slight chill. My hands became clammy, and my forehead started to perspire. I leaned down in my desk and crossed one leg over the other to try to get some blood flow back to my head.

I did not want to be known as the kid who fainted in health class.

I raised my hand and asked to use the restroom. The teacher motioned with his hand for me to go—his white haired, translucent skinned, blue veined arm.

I hurried out of the classroom as everything turned to white and then laid down outside next to the wall. With my knees elevated, I watched my vision return to me through the faded white.

I always thought I would grow out of this inconvenient condition, but I was slowly realizing I wouldn’t be able to help people as a medical doctor.

But I could help them with their psychological problems. Thus, I decided to become a therapist.

In my undergrad years, this was my vocational plan. I was a psychology major, but while plugging away at classes, I noticed I really enjoyed my English classes. I also enjoyed the overall college experience even though my university definitely lacked on stereotypical college living. (Note to high school students, if you feel ready to go away for college, do it. At least for two years after you finish your general education classes.) I learned double majoring would only take about a year longer, and I would then have two BA degrees, so I majored in both psychology and English.

It was when I was working in the English Tutorial Center that I first thought that maybe I could be a real high school English teacher. I was teaching English and writing to college students, so I figured why not?

My dad always suggested I should be a teacher. He would mention how teachers got off earlier than most other jobs and that teachers got the summers off. He brought it up so many times that I eventually became frustrated and told him, “Dad, I don’t want to be a teacher. I never said I wanted to be a teacher. I’m going to be a marriage-family therapist. That’s been my goal the whole time. I’m keeping to it.”

I remember him responding, “I know, but I just think teaching would be a really good job.”

After I graduated from college with my two degrees, I was about to start the application process for a master’s program in psychology when my mom showed me an ad by a private Christian high school looking for an English teacher. My mom suggested I just swing by and introduce myself. I didn’t have a teaching credential, but I was a little curious if they would even consider hiring someone straight out of college.

I put on a tie that matched my khaki pants and my light blue dress shirt, and I drove across town to the big church, which was also the campus of the small high school.

I marched up the stairs to the portable administration building and said to the principal, “Hello, I’m Terry Tripp, and I wanted to speak to you about applying for the English position.”

She looked surprised and invited me to sit down. She then asked about my teaching and ministry experience. I told her about my years of tutoring experience at the university and how I even taught a few English labs there. I went on to tell her my many years of ministry experience, leading worship, teaching Bible studies, and being on church leadership. She smiled, and told me to hold on.

When she came back into the room, she had an older woman with her. The principal introduced the older woman as the curriculum administrator. The principal asked me to say again why I came in today.

I restated that I was interested in the English position, and the two women smiled at each other.

The principal opened a filing cabinet to pull out a 40-page application and said, “This morning the pastor of our church came in and said if a young man comes in inquiring about the English position to hire him on the spot because he’s from the Lord.”

I responded, “Wow, that’s great. I guess it’s hard to argue with that. How many people have been applying for this position?”

“You’re the first one in weeks,” she answered.

I spent a few hours at home filling out the application. I think I had to write out about three different forms of testimonies, and about a month later, I stepped onto that campus as a fulltime English teacher.

Months later on the last day before Christmas break, I took a moment to go outside and just stand still and exist.

There was Christmas music playing on the intercom, and students joyously interacted with each other while eating their lunches outside in the light fog.

They were young. They were happy. They still had that childlike innocence about them—free from the calluses of life.

Although I was excited about the two week break, at that moment I realized something that I didn’t think would happen.

I was going to miss them; I was going to miss my students—the literature that we adventured through together, the inside jokes we developed, the encouragement of the good days, the counseling of the bad ones.

I was doing a form of therapy. Not therapy where I would see a patient once a month, but therapy where I see my students an hour every school day for an entire school year.

I registered for classes in a teaching credential program and a master’s program in education and never looked back. I eventually changed subjects to teach visual art, which was a great change for me, and now I’m able to see students’ more creative side in a relaxed learning environment with more time to counsel and interact with them.

Sometimes God makes decisions very clear in life, practically opening the door for us. Other times when choices are not that clear, we have to use the wisdom that God has given us along with the truth of his scripture to make a decision.

When I was living in Azusa for the summer while working on my MFA in visual art, Steven, a good friend and fellow student, and I got into a memorable conversation while driving to check out some LA art galleries.

I asked, “Don’t you ever wonder if you made the right choice? Don’t you ever wonder what if?”

He boldly said, “No, I don’t.”

“Never?”

He explained, “Why should I? If I’m walking in the Spirit and if I’m praying about every decision and if I’m not living in sin, why should I question past choices? If God is guiding me and if he was guiding me in the past, then questioning my choices guided by his Spirit would be questioning him, and I’m not about to question God.”

Steven’s answer was life changing for me, and it taught me that God is always guiding us in our choices and decisions if we’re in fellowship with him. Sometimes his voice is loud and bold while sometimes it’s in the whisperings of the Holy Spirit and the remembrance of his word.

Drunken College Party

Read a novel. Write a paper. Come to class and debate: the simplified formula for literature classes in college.

And I loved it.

Nine novels in a few months with all my other psychology classes and active social life… but the advanced discussions and safe debates with other students made it oddly enjoyable.

Debating literary themes and the secret intentions of fictitious characters was far safer than tiptoeing around subjects like politics, religion, and the multitude of social issues. The raw discussions and connectivity of the classroom conversations helped students form deeper relationships, while in some of my psychology classes, we just silently took notes from the professor’s lectures.

There’s an experience that happens through stories that connects people. From going to the movies together on a first date, participating in a neighborhood book club, or even sitting around the campfire, people bond together through the experience of storytelling.

As my professor gave our class a 10-minute break from our literary discussion, students moved around the classroom to stretch and socialize.

“Terry, are you coming to my birthday party?” a girl asked—I think her name was Cassie or Stephanie… let’s just call her Cassie.

“Birthday party? What’s this nonsense all about?” I responded.

Cassie smiled, “Well, I’m turning 25, so I’m getting wasted! I so need a break from this crazy quarter. So totally come, bring a friend too. There’s going to be plenty of alcohol.”

“Okay, I’ll be there. I’m not a drinker though, but I would love to hang out.”

Cassie began writing down her address, “Alrighty then! Here’s my apartment. Come whenever, we’ll be up all night.”

I folded up the torn piece of paper Cassie handed me and put it away in my pocket.

That Friday night I drove to pick up Shawn, who always hung out with me during those early college years. I pulled into his driveway, and he came walking to my car cleaning his black rim glasses with the bottom of shirt.

“What’s up, man?” he sat back in my car looking through his clean glasses now ready and eager for the night.

I pulled out the folded address and told him about the party, and we were on our way.

As we walked up through the parking lot, we found a group of people standing outside on the patio smoking. I might have recognized one of them from school. Lights flashed through the upstairs window and low bass rumbled all the way down to the souls of our shoes.

Inside the upstairs apartment, we were greeted by Cassie expressing how happy she was that I came to her birthday party, as she over enunciated each syllable to hide her tipsy slur. She introduced us to her roommate and her friends, and they offered us an extended bar full of a plethora of alcoholic beverages. I was naive in the brands and types of alcohol, but the group stood proudly around the makeshift bar, which communicated to me they must have had quite a desirable collection for a group of college students.

Cassie’s roommate proudly give us a tour of their apartment, once again mentioning the bar. She was really excited to show us the living room, which had a monthly calendar painted on its wall, about six by nine feet in size.

Within each dated box, there was a little drawing and some words written. One read, “American lit. paper due.” Others read, “Wild acid trip” and “Frist threesome experience.” She explained to us how it was her art project and how she would take a Polaroid photograph of the wall and then repaint it at the beginning of each month to have a collection of all her experiences documented in a unique way.

When we ran back into Cassie, she asked us again if we wanted anything to drink. We told her no, and she said, “No, Terry, seriously, we have more than enough drinks, have something.”

“Thanks, but I’m good. I’m just happy being here.”

“I’m getting you a drink. What do you want?” she moved behind the bar.

I knew she wasn’t going to give this up, so I eventually told her, “I actually don’t drink.”

She froze for a moment and replied, “Oh my gosh, you’re like a real Christian.”

“We talked about church that one time in class,” I reminded her.

“Yeah, but a lot of people go to church or even claim to be a Christian though.” She looked around her apartment noticing people grinding up on each other. She looked to a girl passed out on her couch. She looked at the oversized calendar painted on the wall and then to the red cup in her hand. “This must be so offensive to you. I’m so sorry.”

“No, no, don’t apologize. I don’t want you to feel bad about anything. I just wanted to celebrate your birthday with you and let you know I care.”

She didn’t respond for a moment and then searched for the right words, “Thanks so much. I don’t think many people would be here to just celebrate my birthday. You are a real Christian.”

“I’m just a forgiven sinner hanging out with some nice people.”

Cassie smiled and pointed to Shawn, “Is he a real Christian too?”

Shawn said, “I hope so!” He then checked the tag on the inside of his jacket. “Yup, 100 percent real Christian.” And this made Cassie laugh.

Shawn and I stuck around for a little while longer and then took off. While driving Shawn said, “It’s kind of sad that people are surprised to find actual Christians.”

Over the years, I thought a lot about Cassie’s statement. Sadly, there have been some times in my life where people wouldn’t have known I was a real Christian. I think that can be said for most believers. Even Peter publically denied Christ three times.

I think evangelism is a combination of living a pure life and being honest about when we don’t. It’s letting people know that we’re still growing up spiritually and that we struggle. And in our struggles, God’s grace is sufficient. It’s taking the focus off us and placing it onto Jesus.

The Faithful Commitment

The story is somewhat vague to me, but one of the first times my mom brought my dad home, my nanny’s sisters were over. My nanny later said to my mom, “How dare you bring that long haired hippie over when your family’s all here.”

My papa said to my nanny, “Honey, that there is a good boy,” and my nanny trusted my papa.

Required to get a legal signature for permission from his parents, my dad married my mom at 17, and she was 18. Even at such a young age, both of them agreed to do something extreme.

They decided to make a commitment to never allow any drugs or alcohol into their home.

They weren’t Baptist. They didn’t even go to church. But both sides of my family had siblings who struggled with drug addictions, and they had seen the dangers that come with alcohol. They wanted to safeguard their home, their marriage, and their future children.

As a high school teacher today, I examine the maturity levels of some of my seniors, and I’m further impressed by my parents’ monumental decision at such a young age.

Because of their precocious wisdom, my parents were able to give me one of the most precious gifts a kid could ever receive—a good and safe childhood.

I never had to worry about Mom or Dad drinking too much, and drugs were merely an alien concept that existed in another world.

When I was around 10, my mom and I went to the lake with one of my best friends and his mother. His mother had a drinking problem. Instead of bringing a bottle with her, she had a Big Gulp that she kept sipping out of throughout the day. In a few hours, she was passed out, and we all learned it wasn’t soda she had been sipping.

With my mom driving us all home in our minivan and his mother recovering in the passenger seat, my close friend sat one seat away from me trying to hide his tears as he sniffled privately.

I never had to experience anything like that in my house.

It was safe.

But commitments aren’t always easy to uphold.

Although my aunt Lana was only a few years younger than my mother, she almost seemed more like an older sister than an aunt. Not marrying or having children helped her stay in the youthful state of the vogue of the younger generation. She still listened to current popular music and dressed in a way that the kids at my school would say she was pretty if they ever saw her with me.

But she wasn’t around that much.

Sadly, drugs had taken her away from us; she didn’t ever want us to see her when she wasn’t doing well.

When she was around, she completed the family with her uplifting energy, smile, and life-bringing laugh.

I was in the fourth grade, and my family hadn’t heard from Lana in a while. Back before cell phones and social media, you couldn’t keep track of people as well, and honestly, I don’t think my family knew if she were dead or alive at the time.

One regular day my parents heard a knock at the door, and there she was with one of her guy friends. She was unhealthily skinny, which we all knew wasn’t a good sign, but she put on her loving smile and gave us all hugs being happy to see us. I remember my mom looking so thankful that her sister was alive and with her again.

Then Lana went to use the bathroom. After a few minutes, I noticed a disappointing look overcome my dad’s face. Lana eventually came out of the bathroom, and my dad walked in it. When he came out, he said, “Sorry, Lana, but you have to go now.”

She understood and left quickly. I saw my mom’s face fall as she watched her only sibling leave, not knowing if she would ever see her again.

As the front door shut, my mom was already in tears as she pleaded with my dad, “Couldn’t we just have let her stay? She’s not doing well at all.”

My dad restated the commitment, “No one is going to do drugs in this house. It’s our rule. We aren’t going to allow it for her or from anyone.”

I thought my mom was going to be angry. Maybe even furious. I was mentally preparing for some sort of fight—something huge. But my mom did something that I know was extremely difficult for her. She wiped her eyes and said, “You’re right. We can’t.” She looked down. “It’s just that she has had such a hard life.”

My dad responded gently, “I know.”

She and my dad honored their commitment even when it was the most difficult, and they probably didn’t even realize there was a blond hair, little boy watching from the hallway and learning valuable lessons that no scholarly article or academic book nor the most renowned college professor would ever come close to teaching.

Right after high school many years later, I went to a home Bible study associated with a church nearby. The father of the home who lead the study said to us, “If you could only have one word written on your tombstone someday, no name or bio, no dates of your lifespan, just one word, what would that word be?”

I thought about this question for a while as other people threw out words like, “kind” and “helpful.” Some said, “successful” and “ambitious.” Eventually, someone asked him what his one word would be, and he replied, “Faithful.”

Coming from little money with no real education, two young people, 17 and 18, decided to start a family being faithful to their commitments. And because of their selfless faithfulness, they allowed for their children to have a childhood full of peace, love, and safety, so growing up wouldn’t have to happen too fast.

Let’s pray that God helps us all be able to have “faithful” written on our tombstones someday.

The Great Debate

In my later high school and early undergrad years, argumentative and theologically minded Christians, mostly male, discovered what they thought to be the greatest debate in Christian apologetics—predestination versus freewill. Some took tremendous pride in labeling themselves strict five-point Calvinists while others stood on the side of freewill.

Each person researched and collected their share of Bible verses to back up their side—reading the Bible to destroy someone in a debate instead of growing closer to Christ. And yes, I was guilty of this myself.

We were young and dumb (immature), but instead of going out and getting plastered on the weekends, we were in Taco Bell or Starbucks studying up for our next debate. So I guess it wasn’t the worse thing in the world. We were friendly in the end, and it was mostly just for fun—something to do.

After many agonizing years of considering the ideas of predestination and freewill, I’ve come to two conclusions.

First, don’t ever create a system or formula for God because he is far too big for that.

Second, somethings in life are a paradox, and that’s okay. A paradox doesn’t mean that two things contradict; it means they only seemingly contradict but are actually both true.

God’s ways are not our ways, and that’s a good thing. We, as humans, are stuck in linear time, only able to move in one direction, but God is the creator of time, so he is not confined to it. He can exist outside of time.

So what are humans doing creating five points of anything to explain God in their limited thinking and lack of any experience existing outside of time itself?

Basic arrogance.

We should study these ideas and see what the Bible says about them. We can come up with humble conclusions, but in the end, we don’t know for sure how or why God does what he does.

Especially salvation.

It would be like a toddler trying to figure out why her dad is investing in a particular company in the stock market, but then multiply that example by a number with too many zeros to count.

We are only human.

Overall, I think it was my choice to accept Christ as my savior, but I don’t exist outside of time, and I’m not a scholarly theologian, but I am a storyteller.

I was about five or six—old enough to play in my fenced in front yard out in Derby Acers—practically in the middle of nowhere. I don’t remember what I was playing, but I was most likely running around in the short, green grass pretending to be Luke Skywalker or a medieval swordsmen. Maybe my Sheltie, Boy, was running around with me. My mom was most likely in the house preparing dinner for my dad after his long day of welding in the oilfields. The sun was falling behind the small foothills under the western sky, leaving behind a painted scene of vibrant orange, red, and pink.

I stopped playing for a moment, taken away by the arrangement of colors. The cooling of the evening. The soft breeze.

“You are my son.”

My first memory of hearing that inaudible voice that came from within—God’s Holy Spirit.

It wasn’t in actual words, but a spiritual language of its own that still clearly conveyed meaning.

I’m not for sure if that moment lasted a few minutes or only seconds, but it happened. I went back to playing until the night sky motioned me to go in for dinner.

Thus, my thoughts on the great debate is concluded in a story of a father calling out his son.